Here in Ireland we are preparing for a second vote on the Lisbon Treaty and as we are the only country in the EU required to hold a referendum on the issue its outcome may exercise a considerable effect on the overall development of Europe.
The background to this Treaty (also referred to as the Reform Treaty) is quite complex.
The European Union has been rapidly growing in recent years with 12 new members (from Central and Eastern Europe) joining since 2004. Obviously this poses new difficulties with respect to effective administration. So several changes with respect to key institutions e.g. Council of Europe, the Commission and EU Parliament are proposed. Also it has been deemed timely to now collate and also amend the growing legislation that has been accumulated since the founding of the Union. So in many ways the Reform Treaty is designed to act as a statement of what has already been achieved in the EU whilst providing the framework for effective progress in the future.
Stated in this fashion the proposed Treaty might appear quite reasonable and indeed desirable. However in practice it has proven divisive.
The Reform Treaty in many ways represents a slightly watered down version of the EU Constitution. When this constitution was put before the electorate in 2005 it was rejected in both France and the Netherlands.
Then using tactics worthy of Machiavelli the Lisbon Treaty was reformulated in such a manner that it did not legally require referenda to be held in any of the member countries (with the sole exception of Ireland) for it to be passed. Rather a vote in Parliament (secured by the majority vote of parties in power) is enough to signal the assent of each member country to the Treaty. Though difficulties still remain it looks like this will be achieved for the 26 members (not holding a referendum). However one sticky problem remains. Due to a decision of the Supreme Court taken here with respect to a previous case, Ireland is obliged to hold a referendum on the issue. And as it requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 members for the Treaty to become law, the decision of the Irish electorate assumes significant importance.
This in fact is the second time that the Lisbon Treaty has been put before the Irish electorate who voted NO first time around last year.
However following certain concessions and assurances it is now hoped that a YES can now be obtained thus paving the way for overall acceptance of the Treaty.
Perhaps the main argument against acceptance of the Treaty is that in the very way in which it has been handled it demonstrates a growing democratic deficit in the manner in which the EU operates.
Many people now feel alienated from European decision making believing that important decisions are being taken by unelected bureaucrats “in Brussels” significantly affecting their lives but over which they have no effective control.
Though democratic elections are held for the EU Parliament, people do not see how this has immediate relevance. Despite all assurances to the contrary the Parliament is still seen as little more than a “glorified talking shop” for an elite group who are richly rewarded for their membership of this political club. In truth most citizens would have great difficulty in naming their EU parliamentarians who momentarily surface every five years and then quickly disappear off the radar when elected.
Many citizens feel that as the EU becomes larger and more complex that power moves to the centre gradually superseding national, regional and local concerns.
Though of course it may well be argued that in an increasingly globalised world such a shift is necessary it does not help when citizens no longer feel involved in any meaningful fashion with the process.
Though this trend was already well in place before the Lisbon Treaty, perhaps in a certain way it acts to highlight the very nature of the problem involved.
What adds weight to such concerns is the manner in which this latest political process has been handled by our political masters. When it became apparent that the EU Constitution had become dead in the water, rather than significantly address the key problem i.e. the growing sense of a democratic deficit, they decided to change the procedure by which the Treaty would be accepted (with the direct assent of citizens no longer required).
This only acts to strengthen the sense that the interests of the politicians and public servants who comprise the EU power group perhaps differs in fundamental respects from any genuine concern with enhancing democratic accountability.
Then when a NO vote was delivered in the first Irish Referendum on the Treaty, rather than accepting this decision, this “power group” immediately sought to place pressure on its Irish members (e.g. Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs) to ensure that a YES would be delivered at a further referendum.
So from one perspective one could argue that the forthcoming referendum offers a unique opportunity for the Irish to speak on behalf of the wider electorate of Europe whose voice is not being heard. In this way a NO vote could be seen as a fine exercise of genuine democracy in practice.
Unfortunately it is not as easy as this!
It is naïve I believe to think that democracy can ever work in a pure disinterested fashion. Also despite its failings it could be validly argued that the Lisbon Treaty represents the best compromise - as between member country interests - that can be achieved at this time and that it only emerged after years of painstaking discussion and negotiation.
So from this perspective if the Lisbon Treaty was to be rejected life would of course still continue in the EU but at the risk of growing disagreement and fragmentation on various issues. Also this could send out the wrong signals at a very difficult time. With key challenges facing the world relating to trade, the environment, financial markets etc. the ability of the EU to operate on an agreed unified basis is desirable.
I think it is fanciful to believe - as some apparently do - that if this Treaty is defeated that we can simply go back and negotiate a better one. Given that the overall economic climate is much more difficult now that it was when negotiations originally took place, another agreement would be highly unlikely in the present situation.
There is also a strategic argument for Ireland which is very important to consider. Historically EU membership has proven beneficial for the country. Also as a small country we have been successful in accumulating over the years a significant amount of good will among other member countries (largely because of our positive commitment to EU ideals). To be seen to turn now in the opposite direction would not spell the end of the world. However being practical it could significantly erode that fund of good will which could then adversely affect our interests in various ways.
And given our present economic difficulties we can do with as much assistance from the EU as possible. I do not wish to overstate this point however for it is mainly at the margins that the difference would be felt!
Many of the arguments that are put up by both the YES and NO sides have little to do with the Lisbon Treaty. For example the Treaty has no direct relevance for issues such as abortion, neutrality and taxation. Also I do not believe that it directly impinges on worker rights. Admittedly, a significant issue has been raised by the membership of the new Eastern and Central European countries where wage rates are considerably lower than in the older established members. Thus applying traditional rights such as free movement of workers and free establishment of businesses does pose a threat to local workers (who have enjoyed higher wages). However this problem - though very real - is not caused by the Lisbon Treaty. Likewise a workable resolution will have to take place outside it in a pragmatic manner.
In general the EU has proven very responsive to social legislation protecting worker’s rights and this commitment is enshrined in the Charter on Human Rights which is part of the new Treaty. Though individual decisions on specific work related issues will necessarily be taken through the Courts (and cannot be readily predicted) the Charter does at least provide a social oriented backdrop from which such decisions will emanate.
I feel that the quality of debate in Ireland has been greatly marred by a polarisation of attitudes on both sides of the divide. YES proponents in debate seem committed to the untenable position that there is nothing questionable in the Treaty and that it effectively answers all the NO objections. Equally the NO side seem very trenchant in dismissing any of the positives that are put forward on the YES side.
Realistically anyone who attempts to look dispassionately at the issues will see that there are valid arguments to be made from both perspectives.
Ultimately the decision that one takes depends on the way one attempts to balance these arguments against each other (which in turn is greatly influenced by the particular standpoint that one adopts on the issue). In my own case I believe that agreement on a new Treaty is desirable for Europe at this point in time. Also Ireland’s strategic position in Europe can be better protected through a positive approach to the Treaty. This therefore will result in my case - as it did on the first occasion - in a YES vote.