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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Apr 2008

Vol. 189 No. 7

Lisbon Reform Treaty: Statements (Resumed).

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Dick Roche, to the House. It is only 24 hours since I heard him speak about the Lisbon reform treaty at a meeting of the Irish Countrywomen's Association in Termonfeckin. It was an excellent meeting and the audience appreciated the Minister of State's attendance.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the treaty. Ireland is the only EU member state whose citizens have the right to vote on it. In all other states, it is a matter for the Government to accept or reject it. Since Christmas, I have been running a survey on my website to see whether people have much knowledge about the treaty. Some 85% of those who have responded to the question, "Do you feel you have an adequate understanding of the upcoming European Reform Treaty?", have responded "No". With less than two months to go to the referendum, it is a serious issue. People do not know what the treaty is about. While it may be a complex document, I do not think it is incomprehensible. Most of its content is fairly straightforward.

When Ireland joined the European Union in the early 1970s, it was a trading union of nine countries. It has grown since then to the extent that it now has 27 member states. It operates on the basis of various treaties, such as the initial Treaty of Rome and the subsequent Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties which were introduced to try to improve the operation of the ever-expanding Union. Similarly, the Lisbon treaty has been agreed to make sure the EU's structures facilitate good day-to-day management of the Union. The treaty consists of two sets of amendments. The first set amends the Maastricht treaty and the second set amends the Treaty of Rome.

I suggest that the Lisbon treaty can be summarised in five key areas. First, the treaty includes a statement of the values and objectives of the European Union. Second, the treaty sets out a Charter of Fundamental Rights. Third, the treaty makes additional improvements to the operation of democracy within the Union. Fourth, the treaty makes provision for the first time for the EU's involvement in global issues like climate change and humanitarian aid. Fifth, the treaty sets out the position in respect of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is probably the matter that is the subject of most debate. I will comment on each of these five areas.

One of the objectives of the European Union reform process is to set out in writing the exact nature of the Union's goals for the 21st century. The Lisbon treaty defines the values of the Union, such as respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and human rights. The EU's objectives are to promote peace and improve humanitarian aid throughout the world. For the first time, the Union has set as one of its objectives the achievement of full employment throughout all member states. The treaty sets out clear limits to what the EU can do in trying to achieve those objectives. It can act only in areas in which member states have conferred competences on it. The Union cannot do anything a member state can do itself. The principle of proportionality means the EU can act only to achieve the objectives set out for it, and nothing more.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is contained in the Lisbon treaty, has a number of strands. It is based on the concept of human dignity. It prohibits the use of torture and sets out the right to life. It protects essential freedoms such as freedom of liberty, freedom of expression of thought, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. It provides for complete equality across genders, age groups, religions and physical abilities. The charter includes a clause relating to fairness and solidarity. It focuses on the rights of workers and citizens. The right to stand and vote in elections is enshrined in the charter, which also creates a right to obtain information from EU bodies. The charter's justice strand ensures that people enjoy the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. As a result of this treaty, which gives legally binding status to the rights I have mentioned, the EU will be unable to introduce legislation without making sure it adheres to the rights set out in the charter.

I wish to give some specific examples of the manner in which the Lisbon treaty increases democracy across the Union. It establishes a citizens' charter whereby a petition signed by 1 million citizens can be used to get the European Commission to introduce new legislation. The treaty increases transparency and accountability throughout the Union. Meetings of the Council of Ministers at which legislation is discussed and decisions are made will have to be open to the public. These provisions will make the legislative process more transparent. Under this treaty, national parliaments will have a greater role in how laws are enacted. All draft EU legislation will have to go before national parliaments, including the Oireachtas. If we do not like some aspects of such legislation, we will be able to hold up a "yellow card", which will mean those drafting the legislation will have to think again. If a majority of national parliaments does not like the proposed legislation after the Union has thought again, the legislation can be kicked out. The Lisbon treaty fundamentally shifts power away from the Commission towards national parliaments and the European Parliament.

The treaty also includes provisions to deal with the increased size of the European Union. It makes changes to the existing voting process, for example. Approximately 80% of new EU legislation is adopted by consensus. The legislative process tends to be a little more divisive in national parliaments. Decisions are made by means of a vote in just one of every five occasions. Ireland is usually on the winning side in such circumstances. If this treaty is approved, more qualified majority voting will be introduced. There are two strands to qualified majority voting. If a measure is to be approved, 65% of member states by population — states representing more than 300 million EU citizens — have to be in favour of it. In addition, at least 15 of the 27 member states have to sign up to any new legislation. The six member states with the largest populations — Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Poland and Germany, which represent 70% of the population of the Union — cannot force through legislation unless at least 15 member states are in favour of it. The largest member states will be unable to have their way while ignoring the wishes of smaller countries. Equally, the 15 member states with the smallest populations which comprise just 13% of the population of the EU — countries like Ireland and Malta — will be unable to force something through without making sure the needs and wishes of the largest member states are taken into account. The new provisions will ensure that legislation is adopted in a more democratic manner.

There have been some discussions about the measure that provides that Ireland will have a Commissioner for ten of every 15 years, rather than having a Commissioner all the time as we do at present. The United Kingdom, which has a population 15 times that of Ireland, will also have a Commissioner for ten of every 15 years. Ireland will be quite well represented per head of population at Commission level. If this treaty is adopted, Ireland will elect 12 Members of the European Parliament. We will have one MEP for every 400,000 people living here, whereas Germany will have one MEP for every 800,000 people living in that country. We are being looked after quite well on a per capita basis.

The Lisbon treaty makes new provisions in relation to global issues such as climate change. There will be a specific legal basis for the requirement on the Union to promote international action on climate change. The treaty also includes energy policy, which relates to matters like the promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy. For the first time, a legal basis for the provision of humanitarian aid will be introduced. A European voluntary humanitarian aid corps will be established under the treaty. There will be a clear basis for the Union's development policy, the objective of which is the reduction and eventual eradication of poverty throughout the world.

As I said earlier, the provisions in the Lisbon treaty relating to the external policies of the Union probably have been the subject of most debate on the treaty. The treaty contains specific proposals in respect of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. I emphasise that any policy in this area can be adopted only by means of unanimity across all 27 member states. The system of constructive abstention allows countries like Ireland to avoid making a decision if we really do not want to get involved. The "emergency brake" provisions will allow member states to call a halt to legislative proposals they do not like. The treaty establishes a new post of high representative for foreign affairs, who will represent the EU overseas and co-ordinate the implementation of the agreed common policy. Any decision to get involved in a humanitarian operation or crisis intervention — one of the so-called Petersberg Tasks — can be made only on the basis of unanimity. Ireland has its own triple-lock process as well. This means we will not go into any overseas aid or humanitarian mission unless we have Dáil and Seanad approval, Government approval and UN approval. The idea that our sons and daughters will be rushing off to war without our say is complete scaremongering.

The treaty has great benefits for the people of Ireland and Europe. We do not have anything to fear from these changes. We will retain our right to adopt legislation on taxation and defence. The treaty extends rights to citizens, nationally and internationally. It improves democracy at local and national level. It is in our interests to approve this treaty and I will campaign hard for a "Yes" vote.

I welcome the Minister of State and I wish him well in his objective to steer the reform treaty to success. The Minister of State is giving a great deal of time to it and I know it is hard work. I assure him I will do everything to deliver the vote in my constituency. Every area should take control of itself and this is how we will be successful. The Minister of State has my support and all the support he can get in every walk of life within our organisation.

The question that must be asked is why we should vote for the treaty. I will keep it simple. Fifty years ago there were six member states of the EEC, today there are 27 member states of the EU. The treaty must respond to the needs of the 21st century. The institutions must work in today's world. They must be clear in their thinking, transparent, efficient and democratic. They must open up so Joe Citizen will understand what is going on. This was lacking and in this reform treaty I see major simplification to allow everybody in this country to understand. They are now beginning to understand what the reform treaty is all about. It has taken 50 years to simplify the institutions of Europe. It is only right that we simplify them so that all bodies and organisations will understand.

The national parliaments have a major role in the decision-making process. A proposal put forward in Brussels cannot go any further without going through the Chambers of the Dáil and the Seanad to be scrutinised. This is a major concern. No legislation or decisions can be made in Europe without first going through the democratic process in Ireland. This is the cornerstone as to why we should go accept the treaty.

Why must we stay in Europe? We are an island country on the periphery. Economically, through the EU market we have access to 500 million people for direct investment. The value of direct investment to Ireland in 1973 was only £16 million. Last year, direct investment generated more than €3 billion. Voting "No" would undermine Ireland on the European stage.

We must pool our resources with regard to the impact of globalisation, climate change, energy, security, cross-border crime, trafficking, immigration, poverty and injustice. We cannot do this alone. We must work with other member states. It is the only way forward with regard to these global issues. It is extremely important to know that we alone cannot deal with crime. We have cross-border crime and human trafficking and we must work with other member states.

If we vote "No" we isolate ourselves. We cannot do so. We are a small country. It would be awful to think that we were outside the loop. The charter of human rights will have legal status which means the freedom to choose occupation, equality between member states, the right to life and the respect for private and family life are protected.

Politically, membership of the European Union has transformed us. It has given us a place in the world and in Europe, particularly in the formation of key policies affecting our future and the future of mankind. We have an input into climate change, energy and security. We have been a beneficiary of our membership of the European Union. It is in our interests to ratify the reform treaty. It is clearly in Ireland's future economic interest that we vote "Yes". Rejecting it would serve no use. We must urge people to vote in favour of the treaty.

To reject the treaty while the other 26 member states accept it would put Ireland in an extremely difficult position. How would we overcome the problem? We would isolate ourselves and for what reason? There is nothing in the treaty other than that it simplifies the institutions and makes them more democratic. We will not have any interference on taxation, defence, our neutrality or abortion. They are our constitutional issues which cannot be decided by Europe. They can only be decided by this country alone. This is clear. The "No" campaigners state that it will interfere with our sovereignty, neutrality, abortion and tax harmonisation. The key point is that there will be no interference whatsoever.

To object to this treaty would be a great shame. It would make us a very mean country. We have done so well and now we would turn around and state we do not want Europe anymore as we have the Celtic tiger and we do not need it. Today, I urge everybody to vote "Yes" in the referendum for simple reasons. It is more democratic and all decision-making will first have to go through our Parliament. We have unanimity, which is key. I wish the campaign, and the Minister of State, every success.

I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State and thank him for coming. He has been here on all occasions we have addressed the important subject of the Lisbon treaty. Last year also, we had a debate on the issue.

Last week, the Leader of the House made a statement that some parties were speaking through both sides of their mouths on the Lisbon treaty and were hoping the referendum will be defeated. Yesterday, we challenged him on this and he had to agree that where my party is concerned, he could not state we were speaking through both sides of our mouths on the issue. For a long period of time, we have been to the forefront in promoting a "Yes" vote and seeking a date for the referendum.

The last thing we need is the Leader of the House stating "we will be defeated" with regard to the Lisbon treaty. We do not want to have this as a referendum on the Government. A comment such as "we will be defeated" plays into the hands of people who want to have a go at the Government rather than addressing the Lisbon treaty and all that is contained within it.

Sitting suspended at 12.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.