Over the last number of months the issue of The Lisbon Treaty has come more and more to the top of the Political Agenda and we now find ourselves just a number of weeks away from determining our response to it here in Ireland. A lot of the presentation on the ‘No’ side, I am afraid to say has been based on fear and creating a sense of unease. Unfortunately some actively campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote have also slipped into an almost panic like reaction and have tended to try and force people accept the ‘Bona Fides’ of the Treaty. I want to try and avoid that in outlining my reasons why the people of Ireland should vote in favour of The Lisbon Treaty.
The Lisbon Treaty, when ratified, will be the sixth formal amendment to the founding Treaties of the European Union in its fifty one years of existence.
It is worth noting that the Irish Constitution has been successfully amended twenty three times in its seventy one years of existence. On average, the Irish Constitution has been amended once every three years. The European Treaties have been amended on average less than once in every eight years.
The European Union has successfully enlarged the number of Member States from 6 to 9 to 12 to 15 to 25 and now to 27. In this process, it has helped Ireland, Denmark and the UK to catch up economically with their neighbours, it has helped to ensure the re-establishment of durable democracies in Greece, Spain and Portugal, it has brought Austria, Finland and Sweden fully into the European political family, and it has contributed hugely to the re-establishment of liberal, parliamentary democracy and market economies in ten newly-independent states of Central and Eastern Europe.
In my lifetime Greece, Spain and Portugal have been ruled by some form of dictatorship or army. The old Iron Curtain has been in place and fallen. The European Union has facilitated the re-establishment of democracy and nurtured it once it is in place. The European Union is basically about a community built on solidarity and human concerns.
The European Union project is and has been a force for peace. One of the principles of the establishment of the old EEC was to bring peace to the continent of Europe after two very destructive world wars in the 20th century, indeed the last fifty years have been the only time in centuries that various European countries have not at one time or another been at war with each other. This is unique, not only in European history, but in World history also, and is the basis of our European engagement.
Essentially war between European countries has become materially impossible. As time passes this becomes less and less of an ideal but we would do well to remember our history. ‘Life can only be lived forwards, but it must be understood backwards’.
It is apt that as we now celebrate the 10th anniversary of our own Northern Ireland Peace Process to recall that John Hume, a former MEP, himself has described the European Union as the greatest Peace Process in history.
The Single Market has been a great success for the European Union, most especially Ireland. It has been vital for us as an exporting country with a very open economy. With the elimination of transaction costs, the adoption of a single European currency, the euro, we have clear benefits to consumers and businesses alike. Where would Europe be at a time such as this with economic difficulty and with trouble on the international financial markets, if the euro did not exist? If our euro were not an operating currency in 15 different member states, we would be in the same situation we were in 1992 when international currency speculators played one European Union currency off against the other.
From a practical management point of view it is important to recall who makes decisions in the European Union. Decisions are made by the Council of Ministers and today, virtually all decisions are made by negotiation and agreement between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The Council of Ministers is composed of members of the Governments of the Member States, appointed in accordance with their respective political systems. The members of the European Parliament are directly elected by the electorates of the Member States.
Members of the European Parliament are elected by direct vote in each of the member states. This in itself shows how the changes made in the succession of amending Treaties have had a positive democratic effect in that the European Parliament has evolved from being a purely consultative, appointed assembly to being, as it is today, a directly-elected Parliament ultimately answerable to the people.
The Lisbon Treaty itself is the outcome of an extensive and open process which has been going on since December, 2001. That process included the Convention on the Future of Europe which, for the first time, included not only the governments of the Member States but also representatives of the national parliaments and included real participation by the European Parliament and by the social partners. The Convention met in public and was fully accessible to the media. In Ireland we also have the National Forum on Europe chaired by former Senator, Maurice Hayes.
In this Treaty each and every one of the European Union governments maintains its sovereignty. At the same time, each is aware that there are a great many areas where common and concerted action at European Union level offers more advantages to its citizens than action at a purely national level. All of these considerations have been carefully teased out in the process of arriving at the current Treaty text. The European Union does not set our tax rates. It does not run our health and education systems and it does not decide our citizenship laws.
This reform treaty is about ensuring the European Union can become even more democratic, more efficient and more effective in how it will carry out its business into the future. Strong European institutions, including the Parliament are the best guarantee for the implementation of solidarity and ensuring the concerns of all member states, large, medium and small alike, are taken into consideration.
Speaking with one voice and having evolved as it has, representing 500 million people and 27 different countries, the European Union model can and should play a more influential role on the international stage. The European Union can be a strong voice and a force for peace, freedom, justice and democracy.
Like any institution it has not been perfect but it has undeniably gone in the right direction. There is something of value in the model and we should continue to develop it. I cannot see anything in this treaty that in any way diminishes the principles that both established the Union or dilutes the ability of the citizens of the Union to participate in its development either directly or through their own Governments participation.