In resuming the debate on Second Stage of the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2008 I reiterate my support for the provisions in the Lisbon reform treaty aimed at reinforcing the national parliamentary dimension in the European Union. In recognition of the growing importance of EU legislation and the need to hold the Government accountable for the negotiation of this legislation, the Oireachtas established the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, the central task of which is to act as a watchdog, scrutinising all proposed EU legislation which, on average, amounts to more than 500 documents annually. It can decide to scrutinise in depth proposed EU legislation which it believes holds significant implications for Ireland.
The need to bring citizens closer to the decision making process has also been recognised by the European Commission which decided in 2006 to send all proposed EU legislation directly to the national parliaments at the same time as it is sent to governments and the European Parliament. The intention is to invite comments from national parliaments on proposals for EU legislation. The joint committee, through its scrutiny process, can prepare opinions on draft EU legislation. It, therefore, seeks to play its part in bridging the perceived divide between the citizens and their capacity to influence the EU decision-making process.
The work of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny comes at a critical time as the country prepares to vote in a referendum to decide on the ratification of the Lisbon reform treaty. It is important to demonstrate efforts are being made both at national and EU level to listen to the citizens and respond to their concerns regarding the perceived lack of democratic accountability within the EU.
The Lisbon reform treaty contains several provisions aimed at reinforcing the parliamentary dimension in the EU by extending democratic control over decisions at EU level and ensuring greater transparency in the decision-making process.
As chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I have noted how national parliaments are given expanded powers over proposed new legislation from the Commission. All EU legislative proposals are properly and thoroughly examined by public representatives before adoption and the interests of all sectors of society are taken into account as part of the scrutiny process.
When the Lisbon reform treaty is ratified, the role of the Oireachtas and, in turn, the committee on European scrutiny, will be greatly enhanced. Not only will the committee be able to influence Government decision-making on EU issues but, together with other EU national parliaments, it will be able to directly influence the decisions of the European Commission and the final decision-making process at EU level.
At present, national parliaments do not have the formal power to contribute their views on proposed EU law. The Lisbon reform treaty, for the first time, gives a formal role to national parliaments in the EU policy-making process. Article 8.C recognises that national parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union. When ratified, the treaty will allow for the first time national parliaments to be provided for in the main body of an EU treaty. Up to now, provisions relating to national parliaments existed only in protocols and political declarations.
The new article is complemented by two protocols annexed to the reform treaty, the protocol on the role of national parliaments and the protocol on the application of subsidiarity and proportionality. These protocols will allow national parliaments to be better informed and will facilitate them in contributing to EU policy at the earliest stage in the decision-making process. Most importantly, they lay down an early-warning system which enables national parliaments to review EU legislative proposals, judge whether they are in compliance with subsidiarity — the decision is being made as close to the citizen as possible — and forward an opinion to the relevant EU institutions.
All opinions received from national parliaments will be weighted and counted with each national parliament having two votes. The Oireachtas will have one vote for the Dáil and one for the Seanad. If the negative opinions were to represent one third of all votes allocated to national parliaments, the European Commission would have to review its proposal and, subsequently, maintain, amend or withdraw it, giving reasons for its decision.
If the Commission still wishes to maintain a legislative proposal against opposition of a simple majority of national parliaments, the opinions of the Commission and national parliaments will be referred to the European Parliament and the Council for a final decision on compatibility with subsidiarity. If they believe that it is not in compliance, the proposal can be rejected either by 55% majority in the Council or a simple majority in the European Parliament.
Any single national parliament will have the power to veto EU legislation in the field of family law. There is also a further safeguard whereby those national parliaments which submitted a negative opinion are free to bring an action against the Commission to the European Court of Justice on the grounds of an infringement of the subsidiarity principle. National parliaments would be represented by their governments in such proceedings.
This ingenious provision is designed to respond to the demand of EU citizens to make the EU more democratic. There is no better way to achieve this than by enabling the central institution of any democracy, its national parliament, to play an important role in the decision-making of the EU. The aim is to ensure decisions taken by the EU and its member governments are taken with the full knowledge and involvement of the citizen.
Decisions must be taken as close to the citizen as possible, otherwise the EU institutions will be in breach of the principle of subsidiarity. According to Article 5 of the reform treaty, the EU shall act in areas where it does not have exclusive competency only if a proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states but can rather, by reason of the scale or effect of the proposed action, be better achieved at EU level. This article also tasks national parliaments with ensuring that EU institutions comply with the principle of subsidiarity.
The committee on European scrutiny intends to take seriously this task of policing the actions of the EU institutions. It is working to ensure the full implementation of these new provisions by the Oireachtas when the reform treaty comes into force. The overall aim must be to ensure the EU continues to function as efficiently and democratically as possible for the benefit of all EU citizens.
The Lisbon reform treaty will contribute to greater democratic control and transparency of the EU decision-making process and help to ensure the EU is acting in the best interests of the citizen. This, coupled with the new provisions of the treaty on the enhanced role of national parliaments, will hopefully mean that in future eurobarometer surveys, a much larger proportion of us will feel that our opinion counts when the EU takes decisions.
Ireland's membership of the EU has brought positive and significant economic and social advance to all our citizens. It has delivered an unprecedented period of national advancement. Since 1973, policies developed under the EU treaties have helped to transform our country. Under the Common Agricultural Policy and the Structural Funds, up to €58 billion in funding has flowed into Ireland from the EU budget. This support has been vital in improving our infrastructure, greatly improving the competitive position of our economy.
It is no coincidence that Ireland's period of dramatically enhanced prosperity has coincided with the existence of the EU Single Market. The two great achievements of the EU, the euro and the Single Market, have provided a framework through which Irish business has thrived.
Our past successes in Europe, however impressive, are not reason enough to vote "Yes" to the treaty. Past gains were not conjured out of thin air, they were built within a European economic environment shaped in large part by the EU treaties. The Lisbon treaty is for a 21st century Europe and deals with issues central to the future well-being of Ireland.
The issues at stake in the coming referendum are not abstract ones remote from everyday life. At heart, they concern the future of our country. Ireland needs an effective Union to protect our hard-won prosperity. By ratifying the treaty, we will put ourselves in a position to continue drawing maximum benefit from EU membership in the years ahead.
Ireland is the strongest economic success story of the European Union and this treaty will allow us to do even better. Our sense of enthusiasm and self-confidence to identify future opportunities have already taken us through several European referendums. In each past referendum there was a "Yes" and a "No" option and there were arguments and votes in favour of both. For every citizen, it must be clear that past confident and optimistic decisions to vote "Yes" have been proven to be correct, while the doom and gloom forecasts of those voices opposed to EU treaties have been clearly proved wrong. The reality is every time we have said yes, we have gained and taken a step forward.
I welcome the publication of this Bill and wish it speedy passage through the Oireachtas. The role of national parliaments and the critical role of subsidiarity are pertinent, as up to 500 pieces of legislation coming from the EU will be thoroughly debated through the Houses. The Government Whip will allow time for some of the issues to be discussed before the committees to be taken in the Parliament and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, for agreeing to this. Many debates are held in committee but it is important to have them discussed within the Chambers. It is important we examine Bills being introduced and it is equally important that they be debated in this Chamber.
I look forward to an enthusiastic "Yes" vote in the Lisbon reform treaty referendum. While on my feet I acknowledge the Taoiseach and wish him well, as I may not get another opportunity to congratulate him on his outstanding achievements, particularly in Europe. I wish him good health and good luck in his future career. I have always found him courteous, whether in this Chamber or in the constituency. I wish him well and acknowledge his outstanding achievements.