Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Wednesday, 25 Feb 1998

Presentation by the National Platform.

Our next presentation is from Mr. Anthony Coughlan of the National Platform, correspondence in relation to which has already been circulated.

I am glad to have this opportunity to put some points before the committee. Our group was founded at the time of the Maastricht referendum to oppose integration in principle on democratic grounds. For the Amsterdam referendum we will be trying to produce material critical of all major aspects of the Treaty which impinge on Irish democracy. We are affiliated to PANA and agree with its general position on foreign policy and security, but the points I want to make today relate to other matters.

I appreciate that the date of the referendum is not a function of the committee but as far as I know, no order has been made for a referendum on 22 May. On behalf of my organisation I urge the members of the committee to use all their influence to urge the Government not to proceed with the Amsterdam Treaty referendum in May if there is any chance it will coincide with the referendum on the North on or near the same day. It seems to me — and I hope the committee will agree — that it would be a democratic outrage and cynical political opportunism of the worst kind to have these two quite different issues discussed on the same day. Such a move would be unprecedented. The concentration of the country will be on the North in the coming weeks and there is no reason not to have the Amsterdam Treaty referendum in the autumn or when there will be plenty of time to debate it, well removed from Northern Ireland developments.

As the committee will be aware, there is no legal time limit for the ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty. As far as I know no member state has ratified it yet. I believe the Portuguese are having an advisory referendum on it in the autumn. The only reason one might adduce for suggesting that 22 May be the date is that it is five or six days before the Danish referendum. It may be that some members of the Government have given an informal commitment to Brussels to have this referendum a few days before Denmark in order to put pressure on the Danes or to inspire them to emulation because many people think there is a greater question mark hanging over the Danish referendum than over the Irish one.

I urge the committee to take this stance on the grounds of democracy, avoiding putting the Irish people in the impossible position of trying to debate two totally different unconnected issues on the same day, and avoiding putting the newly formed Referendum Commission, which arose from the McKenna case, in an impossible position as it tries to provide public information on the Amsterdam Treaty referendum. Whether that commission has a remit in relation to the referendum on the North is unclear and is a matter of discretion for the Government.

I should point out that neither issue is a matter for the committee. The items under discussion are to be used in the context of drawing up a report on the Amsterdam Treaty which is to be laid before the Houses and nothing else. Mr. Coughlan, I apologise for this interruption which is only intended to concentrate the meeting on the issues before us.

I accept that is the function of the committee but I think it would be appropriate for the members to use their influence to urge the Government to defer the referendum until the autumn.

It is desirable that all the key issues of the Amsterdam Treaty referendum are teased out in this report. As far as I know, the only issue on which there has been any public debate to date has been foreign policy and security. That is why our organisation drew attention to some of the other areas of the Treaty in last week's preliminary memorandum. Our organisation will be sending a further, more extensive, memorandum next week drawing the attention of the committee to a significant range of other issues which should cause public concern and alarm. These issues will be reflected in the submissions made to the referendum commission. No doubt they will figure in the debate and they will be of concern to the committee in drawing up its report.

That brings me to my second point. About a fortnight ago, my distinguished colleague in Trinity College, Dr. Rossa Phelan, had aspersions cast on him at a meeting of the committee by Professor Dooge. I indicated in the letter I sent to the committee that it is very inappropriate that he should have his work criticised in his absence without being given an opportunity to defend himself. Partly to do justice to Dr. Rossa Phelan, who has been unfortunately and unfairly attacked for his scholarly work, I included in my submission the chapter from his book, Amsterdam: What the Treaty Means. The committee will see that it gives good reason for pointing out how, in effect, the Amsterdam Treaty is a kind of embryonic constitution for a European union, giving it legal personality for the first time and making huge constitutional steps with major implications for the Irish Constitution. There has been no public debate on that whatsoever. Dr. Rossa Phelan draws attention to it in this publication from Mr. Brendan Halligan’s institute. It is the only critical essay in the book, but that is why it is very important.

In order to draw attention to the background from which Dr. Rossa Phelan is coming, it is generally recognised that the book he produced on the development of the European Union and constitution and its implications for the Irish Constitution, Revolt or Revolution: the Constitutional Boundaries of the European Community, is probably the most important single intellectual contribution to come from Ireland on the European issue. I want to present a copy of this to the committee for its edification and education. When you, Sir, and your colleagues have finished perusing it, you might care to put it in the Oireachtas Library.

It seems to me the members of the committee owe it to Dr. Rossa Phelan and to themselves, if they want to be informed of the importance and legal significance of this very important Treaty, to get the evidence and contribution of somebody who knows what it is about from a critical point of view. That is why I draw attention to Dr. Rossa Phelan's work and to the chapter in this publication. It was reviewed in The Irish Times by its European correspondent, Mr. Paddy Smyth, who referred to the chapter as indicating that there was a cuckoo in the nest. In other words, Dr. Rossa Phelan, in Mr. Smyth and other people’s view, had views rather out of line with the generality of the contributions to this particular tome. That is why if the committee wants to be informed and to inform the Irish people in the report of the important aspects of this Treaty other than the matters of concern to foreign policy and security, the committee should draw upon his expertise.

The preliminary submission, which I made to the committee and which will be elaborated on in a more extensive submission next week, with the committee's permission, lists the main areas of concern from a democratic point of view which, I suggest, should all be adverted to in the committee's report. The common foreign and security policy has been gone into by Mr. Cole and his colleague, but there was no reference to the fact that the Amsterdam Treaty envisages that the normal procedure would be majority voting on common foreign policy. It is true that if Foreign Ministers cannot agree, the matter can be sent to Prime Ministers and Heads of Government to work it out among themselves. However, that would occur rarely in practice. The normal position would be majority voting on foreign policy positions. This means, in effect, that when it comes to fundamental foreign policy positions — for instance Rwanda or Yugoslavia, when the Germans first decided to recognise Croatia and Slovenia and the others reluctantly went along — majority voting is likely to reign and we will tend to go along with what suits the French and the Germans. That is one aspect of it.

The other aspect to which I am particularly anxious the committee should advert, deal with and support is the point, highlighted by Dr. Rossa Phelan, that what one has here is a kind of embryonic constitution for a European quasi-state. All the members of the committee, so far as I know, have agreed to give up the national currency without too much of a demur; so why should they cavil at giving up foreign policy and security, basic rights or competences down the line?

The Community is given a legal personality and that has major implications for the Irish Constitution. It is founded now on principles not on the member states — that is a major constitutional development. As the committee will be aware, the Treaty gives power to the EU to harmonise large areas of civil and criminal law. This will be a huge area of potential competence in future. Directives, regulations and adjudications of the European Court of Justice will operate over large areas of our civil and criminal law including matters relating to penalties for offences and so on. All of these matters are envisaged under the treaty.

A large area of new European legislation opening up has major implications for Ireland. There is provision for cross-border policing by an embryonic European FBI in Europol which currently comprises civil servants. In a five-year programme of development, this body will be empowered to assist in cross-frontier police operations which, in principle, could open up the possibility of Northern Irish or British policemen operating south of the Border and vice versa. If the treaty is ratified, such a measure will undoubtedly get off the ground.

Another point of concern is that the possibility of a two or three-tier European Union could, in effect, be enshrined in European Law arising from 'flexibility' or closer co-operation provisions between certain countries. A group of states could, for example, integrate closely on the harmonisation of taxes and could present such a harmonisation as something of a fait accompli to countries which did not participate in it. Such an inner core could use the institutions of the European Community to work towards greater integration without having to consult the Irish people on the matter. The possibility of Irish people blocking the closer integration of the EU among a number of countries which might seek to use EU institutions to their own ends, will no longer be available if the treaty is ratified.

If the treaty is ratified, the European Union will also have the power to decide on Ireland's human rights policy. Our human rights policy, as legislated for under the Amsterdam Treaty, may prove to be better or worse than that we already have but we do not know that. Our human rights policy will depend on what the Council of Ministers may decide in this area at some stage in the future. Perhaps even more importantly, once the Council of Ministers makes a general law on human rights, minimum wages and so on, such matters will then come within the ambit of the European Court of Justice.

The employment provisions in the treaty essentially constitute window dressing, outlining a number of reports which do not have any real effect on unemployment. The constitutional amendment, while narrower than the one originally proposed, still has a significant blank cheque element to it. The Amsterdam Treaty is being adopted to facilitate the enlargement of the Community but I do not see such enlargement as being in Ireland's interests, as it means money will have to be spread more thinly, as will the powers of Commissioners and so on. Votes will have to be reapportioned down the road and that will affect Ireland adversely. The contention that the ratification of the treaty is in Ireland's interests confounds me.

I wish to correct a slight error in our preliminary submission. On the question of land buying, Denmark has a protocol in the Maastricht Treaty, not in the Amsterdam one, which empowers it to maintain control over land buying, vetting of the establishment of second homes by foreign nationals and so on. In view of concerns expressed in regard to external capital being responsible for raising house prices in rural Ireland, it would perhaps have been appropriate for Ireland to seek such a protocol in the Amsterdam Treaty. These seem to me to be key issues which it is the duty of this committee to delve into and examine. There is more to the treaty than the issues of foreign policy and neutrality, crucially important though these are.

If Members of the committee wish to be properly informed of the serious constitutional implications of the treaty both for Europe and Ireland, it should refer to Dr. Rossa Phelan's work and perhaps call on him to make a submission on it. I urge Members not to connive in a democratic outrage by allowing or encouraging the ratification of the treaty. They should seek to hold the Government back from holding a referendum on the treaty at the same time as holding a referendum on Northern Ireland. Whether Members are in favour of or against European integration, there is no reason this referendum should not be delayed until the autumn to facilitate a proper debate, on which events in Northern Ireland will not impinge.

I welcome Mr. Coughlan who singled out a number of aspects of the Amsterdam Treaty to which he felt Members should object. Is it not very difficult to find fault with Europol and argue against the kind of police co-operation proposed in the treaty? I am the Seanad Opposition spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law reform and I dealt with the Europol Bill when it passed through the House some months ago. The Bill does not confer any power on the police force of one member state to carry out police work in another. However, it allows for increased co-operation between police forces of member states in their fight against cross-border crime such as drug trafficking and terrorism.

On the issue of human rights, would Mr. Coughlan agree the human rights records of EU member states are among the best in the world? Their record is better than that of the US or any of the Eastern bloc countries. I am a Member of the parliamentary tier of the Council of Europe which is responsible for keeping a very close eye on the state of human rights throughout the world and the standard of human rights set and practised in the EU is among the best in the world. Ireland owes a great deal of its enlightened human and civil rights legislation to the EU and its member states, particularly in regard to equal rights for women in many areas such as the social welfare code and labour law. Pressure was exerted on Ireland in these areas by virtue of our membership of the European Community. Is it not very difficult to argue against these matters given the EU record which I have outlined?

Ms Malone (MEP)

I am inclined to agree with Mr. Coughlan on the issue of the referendum date. We have not had a sufficient debate on this matter and we have certainly not seen any evidence of spending of the £2.5 million put aside by Government to be spent on an information campaign on the treaty. I am gaining a great deal of knowledge and information from the various delegations here today.

Mr. Coughlan and I are familiar with each other's positions from our debating days in TCD and UCD. I find his remark that European enlargement is not in Ireland's interests somewhat extraordinary and very narrow in its focus. He stated that if the EU is enlarged, less money will be made available to Ireland. Surely we should display a little more generosity towards the countries in central and eastern Europe? It is not very long ago that Ireland received the financial leg-up it required to bring our economy to its current position. Are we now to deny this to other countries who see themselves as having a European vocation? Mr. Coughlan also stated that farmers are worried about the implications of admitting Poland into the EU. He is being somewhat disingenuous there. I have not yet heard any strong opposition from Irish farmers to the Amsterdam Treaty or the issue of enlargement. Perhaps when the debate on Agenda 2000 proceeds in earnest, there will be more debate on the issue.

Successive Governments have endorsed enlargement. However, the non-discrimination clause has been criticised. I am getting positive feedback from senior citizens who are delighted they are recognised in the treaty and that there can be no discrimination on the grounds of age. This is a great step forward and I cannot endorse the contorted manner in which this is seen by some people. The criticism is out of step with the majority view of the public.

Mr. McCartin MEP

It was mentioned in passing in the context of the single currency that we have done away with our national currency. For a long time we did not have a national currency but since it emerged it has either been identified with or influenced by the deutschmark or sterling. The value of our currency is affected regardless of what we say or do by what is happening elsewhere. We have two choices: we can join sterling or we can stay with the bloc where most of our trade is and which will have a great effect on our future economic and monetary progress. When we decided to break the link with sterling there was no debate as it was obvious to everybody in 1979 that we should chose in favour of the EU. An earlier speaker seemed to think the Republic, Northern Ireland and the British have a single currency. We have not had such since 1979. The value of our two currencies has fluctuated wildly since then. Nothing could be more disruptive of trade relations than the present situation. Nobody should be surprised by the near unanimity on this issue.

We are inserting a common standard of human rights and personal freedoms into the European treaties to which the Council of Europe has already agreed. There is nothing new about this: we are formalising something which was already a fairly formal agreement between ourselves and our European partners in the Council. We are not giving any competence which will affect the ordinary citizen over and above what is already agreed in the Council.

Regarding the date of the referendum, in the past there have been local and European elections on the same day with different issues being put to the public. I expect the concern is about a big turn out in the context of what is happening in Northern Ireland and that the preference will be for a big majority in a small rather than a large turn out, something which might be useful from a propaganda perspective at European level. I do not think the northern crisis will distract people from the issue about which they have largely made up their minds. The feeling is that the treaty, in a broad spectrum of areas, amends and modernises the treaties we have already signed but makes no dramatic change to anything that will seriously affect the ordinary lives of EU citizens.

I was alarmed by Mr. Coughlan's suggestion that enlargement is not in Ireland's interest. He outlined a very selfish and narrow point of view on the very thin spread of money which will follow enlargement. Ireland should be the last to promote this attitude as it has benefited substantially over the years from membership. In consequence we have improved ourselves beyond recognition. We should not suggest that we would deny others the standards we have achieved through membership of the EU.

I dispute the facts as set out about Europol. Article K.2 of the treaty sets out a five year programme of development for Europol if the treaty is ratified. The article speaks of enabling Europol to facilitate and support the operation action of joint teams comprising representatives of Europol in a support capacity. This refers to police operations.

A French policeman cannot arrest me in Ireland as Mr. Coughlan implies.

Time will tell what it means. It envisages police operations with joint teams with Europol in a support capacity. This is exactly how the FBI developed in America vis-à-vis the police force at national state level.

Fighting crime is a good thing.

Regarding human rights, Ireland, like the other EU states, is a member of the Council of Europe and is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. All states have basic human rights standards in their national constitutions. The treaty endows European institutions with a huge new competence which enables them decide our human rights. It is not simply a question of observing the European convention: the European Council and the court will have power to decide our human rights. These may be better or worse — we do not know. Regarding older people, of course we do not want discrimination against——

Mr. McCartin MEP

They will not decide. The only power they will have will be to impose sanctions on us if we do not observe human rights. That is done already.

We cannot have a debate of this manner. Another delegation is waiting and we are very short of time. Perhaps a general response could be made to the points raised. We cannot argue the contents of the documentation before the committee in the short time available.

That is all the more reason to get a competent lawyer who knows what it means to advise——

We take on board the suggestion. It would be unfair to presume ignorance on the part of the committee on how to get information. We are aware of Mr. Coughlan's suggestion and that competent lawyers often have opposing views. Perhaps Mr. Coughlan could refer to the points raised by Members.

A competent lawyer was attacked here a fortnight ago without any chance to defend himself.

On the issue of enlargement the statement I read was "The National Platform Organisation holds that enlargement is not good either for us or for the applicant countries". If membership of the EU reduces democracy in Ireland, as it does, it will reduce democracy for the applicant countries, something which is bad for them. Regarding enlargement I was not primarily concerned with funds, although it is obvious that if the Poles and others join the EU the money must be spread more thinly. More important are voting rights. I am sure everybody is aware that the treaty puts a cap of 700 members on the European Parliament. That means that if the Poles and Czechs join, there will be fewer seats for Irish MEPs. The number will be reduced from 15 to 13 or 14. Some MEPs will lose their jobs. More important than this, given that parliamentarians are of relatively little importance, is the reduction in votes for Ireland on the Council of Ministers. This is a consequence of enlargement and why we should automatically welcome it with open arms is unclear.

Ms. Malone MEP

What about the question of age?

Regarding age, some discrimination is good. I am sure the MEP and others are discriminating people. In America it is illegal to have a compulsory retirement age under 70. That might or might not be a good thing. If this Treaty is ratified, it becomes a competence and a power of the European Union to say that no one shall be forced to retire under the age of 70. That might be good or bad, but it is an example of how older people could be affected.

Does it not represent more good than bad?

The European Union decides, not us. Our Constitution goes out the window as far as basic rights are concerned.

I thank Mr. Anthony Coughlan for his informative presentation. I look forward to debating some of the issues he raised. Neither I nor any member of the committee do not require legal advice to debate the issue with him. Your presentation will be used in the context of the compilation of the report. That does not mean there will be a verbatim account of the views expressed by those who made a presentation.

I apologise for keeping Mr. Mike Allen waiting but there was a long agenda today. I felt it was better to try to accommodate you today in case we do not have an opportunity for a further meeting before we present the report to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Mr. Mike Allen is the general secretary of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed.