Yesterday, the Dáil had its fifth day of debate on the Second reading of the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2008. Some selected contributions.
The Lisbon treaty is the outcome of an extensive and open process that has gone on since December 2001. The process included a convention on the future of Europe that included not only national governments from member states but also representatives from national parliaments. There was real participation in this process by the European Parliament and the social partners. The convention was held in public and was accessible to the media and the public and it produced the proposals for the constitutional treaty.
Looking to the future, in the period 2007-13, Ireland can expect to receive approximately €12 billion from the CAP, with €2.3 billion coming from the European agricultural fund for rural development, EAFRD, to fund REPS, ERS, farm investment programmes, installation aid schemes and Leader programmes. An estimated €10 billion will come from the European agricultural guarantee fund and will be used to fund the single payment scheme and market support measures, export refunds, intervention etc.This is the background against which we need to look at the Lisbon treaty. This treaty provides for Ireland’s voice to continue to be heard in the EU in an effective and efficient manner. A positive vote in the referendum on the treaty will send a clear signal that Ireland is determined to maintain its place at the centre of EU decision making. I have been asked on a number of occasions to state what practical differences will arise for agriculture with the adoption of the reform treaty. In practical terms, the reform treaty will not alter the arrangements that currently apply in the agriculture and fisheries sectors to any great extent. The reform treaty introduces the principle of qualified majority voting to certain new areas but the principle has been enshrined in the agriculture and fisheries sectors for some considerable time. While there will be some alterations to the thresholds for reaching a qualified majority under the new arrangements, these alterations will not have significant implications for decision-making. The reality is that most decisions on agriculture and fisheries are arrived at by consensus. It is highly unusual for matters to come to a vote on agriculture and fisheries issues and when they do, close voting margins are unusual.
I have been involved in a number of referendums, some of which have been extremely contentious, and I welcome the peace that has been achieved, although we must debate the issues in an open fashion and deal with questions and concerns.
This seems a simple matter at heart, even though it is a long, complicated treaty. It is essentially about ensuring we have a framework for 27 countries. At present we are operating under rules that apply to 15 country membership. With the considerable growth in the EU we must ensure it can operate as efficiently as possible. We are conscious that an element of bureaucracy surrounds the EU. To an extent this is inevitable but it must be streamlined. More importantly, the EU must be democratised further than has been the practice in the past.
One of my concerns is about meetings of the Council of Ministers, which have always been held in private. The fact that co-decision is provided for between the Parliament and the Council is an important step forward. The greater openness in respect of coverage of meetings is a step forward although there are always means to circumvent this when difficult decisions must be made. Human ingenuity will ensure this pertains into the future.
The European Union often seems to be a distant body which does things that create difficulties, such as straightening bananas and so on, that are at a great remove from people’s lives. However, one should look back and consider the longer term. The European Union has been an enormously benign influence in respect of inequality and at times has been a persuader in ensuring that we dealt with such issues. As someone who has been involved in the women’s movement for far too long, I recall times when we depended completely on the European Union to protect and promote our rights. When we were obliged to fight tooth and nail against reactionary Government policies that excluded, denied and neglected women, we were able to reach beyond the national Government and obtain support from the European Union in a manner that was transformative for our lives and for women of my generation. This was not limited to women as it also applied to workers’ rights and to Northern Ireland.
Why should we ratify the Lisbon treaty? First, the Lisbon treaty contains little when compared to, for example, the previous treaties such as the Single European Act or the Maastricht, Amsterdam or Nice treaties. Its main purpose is to make the European Union more manageable. The same structures manage the European Union today as obtained in 1953, when there were only six member states, as opposed to the present total of 27. The three institutions that drive the European Union are the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers. The role of the European Parliament will be enhanced in respect of input into legislation and policy for the member states and citizens of Europe. Membership of the Commission has been reduced from 27 to 18 and it is important to remember this measure is not new to this treaty, because we already agreed in the Nice treaty to reduce the number of Commissioners.
An important point for the Irish people is that we will have equality with all other member states. Although our population is only 4 million people, we will have a Commissioner on exactly the same terms as does Germany, with a population of 80 million people, and all the other member states of the European Union. Moreover, the five bigger states, namely, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Spain, had two Commissioners until 2004. However, they will only have one Commissioner, in exactly the same way as Ireland, that is, in every 15-year cycle there will be a period during which member states will not have a Commissioner.
Those who invite us to oppose the treaty would ask us to agree that the referendum will not be about Europe or the European project but about the merits or otherwise of the detailed text of the treaty. I fundamentally disagree. This is a referendum on the European Union and it presents Ireland with an opportunity to pass judgment on where we stand in Europe. This vote is as much a referendum on the European Union as it is about the arguments and complexities of qualified majority voting or the rotation of commissioners. The destiny and ambitions of this country are intricately tied to the European project so we cannot consider the treaty in isolation. Weighing up its pros and cons without having regard for the wider issues would be a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake.
The problem with the Nice treaty was that the political establishment, including my party and others, took people for granted. That is why it is crucial in the weeks ahead that effort is made on the ground, public meetings are held, arguments in local media and on radio are put to the “no” side, and, ultimately, people are not taken for granted. Name-calling and calling people loolahs will not help. We need a mature debate on the issues of Europe.
It is also important that those who argue for a “no” vote in this referendum tell us their vision for Europe. If, for example, the rules were changed on QMV or the position of the Commission, would they argue for a “yes” vote? Of course they would not. This issue has been used by certain groups in this country for the same cynical reasons of getting 50% of the publicity or trying to push other political agendas. If the Green Party was on this side of the House today, it would argue against the treaty for its own narrow, pathetic little interest, and everybody in the House knows that. The Green Party has used in the most cynical fashion every EU treaty debate for its own political ends and the people realise that.
Irish citizens like the idea of having a second layer of rights through the European Union. We have primary rights through Bunreacht na hÉireann but we have EU-wide rights also, for example, for workers and women. One can ask whether the advance of women in this country would have been possible two decades ago were it not for the European Union. At that time this country was still in a very conservative mode in terms of the position of women. It was the European Union that led the way. Irish citizens know this and they have a multifaceted view of their rights being domestic but also Europe-wide and international.
Many opponents of the treaty are making much noise about rejecting it. We must accept the treaty. Ireland is the only member state to have a referendum on it. This opportunity to exercise our democratic right on the treaty is a lasting testament to de Valera’s 1937 Constitution.
Ireland’s relationship with the EU has been a very positive one. The “No” campaign, on the other hand, is pulling up the drawbridge before less fortunate member states can get on board. Theirs is a selfish and thoughtless position to keep what we have achieved for ourselves. Being part of a wider regional political and economic entity enabled us to modernise in many ways. We are a small open economy. It would never make sense for us to go it alone.
I ask voters, when making up their minds, to do so on the basis of two questions. These are what the treaty will do for Ireland and what it will do for the individual. When voters reflect on those questions, they will realise this treaty is good for Ireland, other smaller nations and Europe as a whole.
People regularly assign blame to the European Union in this country when something goes wrong. It is an easy target and a whipping boy for when something goes wrong. We can blame the bureaucrats in the European Union. Nevertheless, I was told confidentially some years ago that we have a fair amount of bureaucrats ourselves and we did not need to go over there for them. We could supply them with a full market if there was a need.
The debate was adjourned at 13:00 and will continue next week it seams.
Some Contributions from the Fourth Day of Debate on the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill
Some Contributions from the Third Day of Debate on the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill
Some Contributions from the Second Day of Debate on the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill
Some Contributions from the First Day of Debate on the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill