The posters are up, opinion is shifting (or solidifying) and the campaign is entering its final stages. It seems opportune therefore to move on from simple criticism of Libertas (which seems to antagonise some of our more swashbuckling comrades) and other elements of the No campaign, and look the Treaty itself. Consider it a kind of ‘cards on the table’ moment.
Before exploring the pros and cons of Lisbon, it’s first necessary to dispel a couple of myths that have built up around it. Firstly, there’s a widespread belief that this Treaty is unreadable, impossible to understand (and deliberately designed to be so, if we are to lend credence to some of its more paranoid opponents). It really isn’t. Certainly, it’s no pageturner and is unlikely to find a place on airport bookshelves between the Tom Clancy and the Marian Keyes. However, it’s really no more complicated than any substantial piece of primary legislation, and the changes proposed are reasonably straightforward. What is true is that it’s impossible to understand what the Treaty changes without a copy of both the Treaty and the consolidated versions of the current Treaties in front of you. This, while irritating, is unavoidable and actually more transparent that voting on a single, consolidated document. It’s no different (other than in scale) to looking at what the Irish Constitution currently says when considering whether support any proposed amendment.
The other widespread myth, perpetuated by both the Yes and No campaigns is that the Lisbon Treaty makes substantial and far-reaching changes (for better or worse) to the operation of the European Union. It doesn’t. It’s not that significant at all. The changes introduced under Maastricht, Amsterdam and even Nice were far more radical than the limited amendments to operations currently being proposed. It introduces no new competences to the Union and is just the institutional cleaning-up exercise that some have described it as, resolving a number of outstanding issues which should have been resolved under Nice but on which it wasn’t possible to reach agreement in time for the 2004 Enlargement.
What is required to understand the Lisbon Treaty and its significance, however, is a basic grasp of the institutions of the European Union and how they operate. Given that it’s not a particularly interesting subject, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a subject on which quite a number of people (including some who might be expected to know better) are quite ignorant. This state of affairs is not new and, until recently, caused no difficulty for supporters of EU integration. They could simply point to the money rolling in and tell people vote for whichever Treaty was being ratified at the time. The problem now, of course, is that having fostered this kind of ignorance for so long, they’re unable to rely on a basic background knowledge on the part of the electorate which would allow it to distinguish a valid argument from a nonsensical one during the campaign. As you sow, etc.
So why a Yes vote, then? Simply put, I’m voting for the Lisbon Treaty because it represents an improvement, broadly, on the current institutional arrangements and enhances democratic accountability within the Union. It increases the power of the European Parliament in its ability to assent to or reject legislation prepared by the Commission. It gives effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights which, while not as substantial as it’s sometimes presented (it only applies to the institutions of the EU, or to the national implementation of EU legislation – not going to give us gay marriage, for example) is still a positive move in enshrining the fundamental rights of the individual in the Treaties. The Citizens’ Initiative which Lisbon introduces is a particularly interesting development; not only does it enhance the power of European citizens to hold the institutions of the Union to account, it also has the potential to begin to create a genuine transnational European political identity, as only a campaign on that scale and with that scope could mobilise the numbers necessary to have any petition recognised under the Initiative.
Much time and energy has been given over to the discussion of the relative voting strength of Ireland under the proposed revised QMV system, with quite a bit of heat but very little light. Reverting for the moment to the point about knowledge of how the Union works being important in this debate, the fact that so much focus has been given to the QMV issue does show a complete overestimation of the extent to which any decision would go to a vote under the present rules, including in situations where QMV currently applies. That said, however, there does appear to be something of a disconnect between the demands for great democratic accountability within the Union and opposition to changes to the QMV system. Once the principle that certain decisions be taken by QMV is conceded – and it has – then it’s difficult to see how one can object to moves towards a system where equal consideration is given to all EU citizens, and where votes in Council are weighted accordingly. If one was to introduce QMV now and was developing the system from behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance I would suggest that the system emerging from the process would resemble the Lisbon proposals far more than it would the current arrangement.
I do remain unconvinced of the merits of some aspects of the Treaty, the permanent President of the European Council being a case in point. Leaving aside the fact that this isn’t quite the new position that some like Libertas seem to think it is (Nicolas Sarkozy will be the President of that body in about six weeks), it’s not at all clear what added value a permanent (well, semi-permanent) independent President would bring. The role of the European Council itself is rather limited, certainly in legislative terms, and the President doesn’t currently wield any significant power other than political clout (this being as much a function of their domestic position – depending on the incumbent – as of the fact that they chair two meetings in a six-month period). Additionally, given the fact that the rotation of Presidencies between Member States is being retained in the Council of the European Union (apart from the Foreign Affairs formation) the new position of President could potentially prove to be an obstacle to the smooth running of the Union at its highest levels, as opposed to providing the continuity and consistency that’s often suggested. It might, therefore, have been best if this proposal had been dropped at the same time as they did away with the flag and the anthem from the Constitution; like those it’s just another hangover from Vichy collaborationist Giscard d’Estaing’s dreams of Convention glory. However, it’s still not quite strong enough a flaw to swing me towards a ‘No’ position.
Speaking of which, it would be refreshing if a little more honesty was employed in discussions about the consequences of a No vote. It has been said that the cases of France and Holland are useful comparisons here: they voted No to the Constitution, and nothing happened to them. True, to a extent, but to labour a rather obvious point, Ireland is neither France nor Holland and, from the perspective of national interests (if one actually cares about such things) Ireland is far more dependent on the goodwill of other Member States than France or Holland are. On this point, Brian Cowen is actually correct. If Ireland votes No to this Treaty, and blocks the implementation of its provisions in the face of overwhelming support from the administrations of virtually all other Member States, it would seriously affect the ability of Irish officials to gain sympathy for the Irish position in a host of other fora, discussions on the future of the CAP being an obvious example.
This is not, in itself, a particularly strong reason for voting Yes and it’s certainly not a pretty or principled one. It is, however, an honest one. It’s a nonsense to suggest, as Sinn Féin does, for example, that voting No would allow for the negotiation of a ‘better deal’ for Ireland. On what basis do they think that other Member States would be in any mood to bend over backwards to appease the electorate of this country – a country which needs the EU far more than the EU needs it? What would happen is simply what happened with the Nice referenda: a few declarations here and there adding essentially nothing and a rerun of the campaign. To those who suggest that a rejection of the Treaty would not only not damage Ireland’s standing within the Union but would, in fact, enhance it I would simply say the following. Get real.
Finally, questions about the primacy given to competition and free markets, about transparency of decision-making or about the disbursement of EU funding are, to a great extent, valid ones and deserve to be addressed. However, they are not questions that are relevant to this particular debate. There is no better or improved EU on offer if the Lisbon Treaty is rejected. We don’t have a choice between Lisbon and Lisbon Plus, between Lisbon and the Programme of the Left Opposition or between Lisbon and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. It’s a flat choice between Lisbon and the current institutional framework. For the reasons I’ve argued above Lisbon is, in my view, an improvement on the only alternative currently on the table. A slight improvement, perhaps, but an improvement nonetheless. And it’s for that reason, above all, that I will be voting, regretfully, Yes.