Lisbon Reform Treaty

April 3rd, 2008 - abvadmin




Deputy Pat Breen: I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of the Twenty-eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2008 on the Lisbon reform treaty. I am delighted also that the Taoiseach named the date for the referendum, Thursday, 12 June 2008. This gives all parties the opportunity over the next few months to go to the people and explain the treaty to them. The people need to have it explained.

The Fine Gael Party supports the Bill and we will encourage a “Yes” vote over the next few months. As a party, Fine Gael has taken its responsibility seriously and will take the campaign to the people. We have already commenced this with meetings in Sligo and Cork. We had a large attendance at those meetings and found the meetings constructive. We had expert speakers who explained the treaty to the audience.

We will have approximately 30 meetings throughout the country at various venues. The meeting in my Clare constituency will be on 6 May, next Tuesday. Our party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, who is a committed European, will attend many of these meetings. I am delighted he has invited the European People’s Party, EPP, group to Ireland and it will attend a summit meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel on Monday, 14 April 2008. We expect there will be a number of European leaders at that summit meeting, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Some 11 heads of Government are members of the EPP group. It is the largest group in Europe and is a very committed group.

The meeting will have nothing to do with the reform treaty as it is an extraordinary meeting to deal with other European affairs. It is a matter for the Irish people to deal with the referendum themselves. However, I am sure party leaders who will attend the summit will have a keen interest in the Irish situation. As many previous speakers have said, Ireland is the only country out of the 27 European Union members that will put the treaty to the people in a referendum. All eyes will be on the Irish over the next few months to see whether they will ratify the treaty.

I am confident the treaty will be ratified. We have an educated electorate and they will realise that Europe has been good to them and that by ratifying the treaty, Ireland will play its role. I congratulate the Polish Government on its ratification of the treaty this weak in Warsaw.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: It did so by an overwhelming majority of 80% to 20%.

Deputy Pat Breen: Yes, and it is a country that has just joined the European Union. It is the seventh country to have ratified the treaty. We already had Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Malta, Slovenia and recently France, at an elaborate ceremony in Versailles.

What are we asking the people to vote for in June? Many of the people do not know the provisions of the Lisbon treaty or for what they are voting. The outcome of our vote in June will affect the lives of almost 500 million people in Europe. We all remember what happened with the Nice treaty. It was rejected and not ratified at first, and much of the blame for that goes to the political parties who did not do their job. We ratified it second time round, but what would have happened if we did not? Our ratification gave countries like Poland and other post-communist east European countries an opportunity for a better life. Now we have many of these people working throughout Europe and in Ireland and playing an important role in building our infrastructure and providing for our future needs.

Referenda are complex, but not very exciting. The Lisbon treaty is no different in that respect from previous treaties and must be explained in simple terms to the electorate. Since the formation of the EEC in 1957 when there were six members, the EU has changed significantly. We joined in 1973 with Denmark and the UK. EU membership has been good for Ireland and since joining we have created approximately 1 million jobs and received almost €58 billion in transfer payments. That amounts to approximately €15,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. Irish citizens have the right to move, work and reside freely in other member states.

Many of our young people are doing that and vice versa. Many people from Poland and other post-communist countries are moving to this country and playing their very important role here. Of course, the introduction of the euro has made travel within the EU more convenient and much more effective.

A total of 960 foreign companies employing 960,000 workers have set up in Ireland. We also enjoy free health cover when we travel to other countries. Irish is now an official language in the EU. Average wages have increased from 60% of the EU average in 1973 to 138% today. Over that period, we have built nearly 500 km of motorway. We have come a long way. I would certainly like to see more motorways built throughout the country but it will happen. Europe has played a very important role in building those motorways through finance from the European Structural Funds.

These are just some of the benefits of our EU membership. There have been many treaties over the past 50 years since the formation of the EEC. These treaties are designed to improve the Union. In 1986, we voted “Yes” in a referendum on the Single European Act, which established a single market and improved our competitiveness. Look at the international markets that have opened up to us. In 1992, we voted for the Maastricht treaty, which paved the way for monetary union. In 1997, we voted for the Amsterdam treaty, which added to the previous treaties. In 2001, we voted for the Nice treaty, which dealt with the enlargement of the union to cater for the 25 new members at that time. Since then, two more countries have been added to the Union.

These treaties are necessary to cater for expansion in the way the EU operates. It is quite obvious that since 27 countries are now members of the EU, it is much harder to operate than it was back in 1973 when we joined and there were only nine countries in the Union. Therefore, these changes have to be made from time to time in order to enhance efficiency and the way democracy works in the Union.

The main provisions of the Lisbon treaty, as explained by the Minister last night and Deputy Timmins, will provide national parliaments, including the Dáil, with a new wider role in EU affairs. It will develop the role of the European Parliament and introduce a citizens’ initiative which gives EU citizens a direct role in EU matters. Under this rule, a person with one million signatures from a number of member states can request the European Commission to bring forward proposals for new laws. It will reform the decision-making process within the Union and will set out the EU’s powers and their limits. The EU reaffirms its commitment to consensus in decision making and respects the rights of smaller member states. That is the key in this treaty and the EU itself. Under the new proposed voting rules in the Council of Ministers, a double lock will operate which requires proposals to get the support of a majority composed of 55% of EU member states representing at least 65% of the EU population. In addition, even if all large member states voted the same way on a particular proposal, the support of at least nine small member states would be required.

There has been concern for some time that the European Commission is becoming too large and difficult to operate. There are 27 Commissioners and each country has a Commissioner. Under the new treaty, the Commissioners will be limited to two-thirds of the number of member states. If there are 27 members at the moment, we will have 18 Commissioners. That would make it more like our Cabinet. I know the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, knows that 15, 16 or 17 is more than enough people at a Cabinet table. Where one has 27 members, it is much more difficult for decisions to be made and for consensus to be reached. It is much more efficient and effective to have a Cabinet-type Commission. It will be stronger and much more cohesive. Membership of the Commission will be organised on a strict rotation basis. Each member state will have a Commissioner for ten out of every 15 years. Importantly, this will apply to the large countries as well as small ones. Countries like Ireland and Luxembourg will be treated in the same way as the bigger countries. We all know that in the past, Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain had two Commissioners, while we had only one. All these countries will now be treated in the same way. This demonstrates how small countries are being looked after by the EU and the treaty and that they are being protected. The same can be said for the European Parliament where no country, no matter how small, can have fewer than six MEPs and where the larger countries can have no more than 96. We have 13 MEPs, a number that will be reduced to 12 for the next European elections.

The treaty also contains provisions on fundamental rights. It gives legal status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and allows EU ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is also very important in light of what is happening throughout the world in respect of human rights in areas like Zimbabwe, Tibet and Burma. On the external role, a new permanent President of the European Council, who will be elected for two and a half years by the Heads of State and Government, will drive forward the EU and will report back to the European institutions. A new high commissioner will ensure consistency in the EU’s dealings with foreign countries and international bodies. It is very important that we have someone like that to represent and have the backing of the 27 member states.

For the ordinary person, the Lisbon treaty is not exciting. Ordinary people do not see millions of euro coming to the country as a result of it. However, it will improve efficiency and create better and more open procedures. When one has 27 countries, one has different styles of government, economies, cultures and aspirations. One must have a new treaty to deal with those challenges and that is what the Lisbon treaty is all about.

I have no doubt that those who oppose the treaty will come out with the same arguments they produced during other referenda debates in the past. They will claim that the treaty will raise taxes, create a superstate, cost us money and lead to free availability of abortion and stem cell research. The other argument is that we will be forced to join a European army. These are just some of the arguments these people will come up with. Of course, they have a right to oppose treaties. That is what democracy is all about. However, I firmly believe that their arguments must be valid, based on fact and relate to what is contained in the proposed treaty. Their arguments must not be based on exaggerated and untrue claims that are intended to scare the electorate and create an atmosphere of fear.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Absolutely.

Deputy Pat Breen: The treaty will not raise taxes because it contains no reference to a common tax policy. Ireland will retain control of its own tax policy and tax rates. The treaty does not create a superstate. It safeguards our sovereignty and sets out the areas for which the EU has responsibility and its limits. It will not lead to abortion and stem cell research. The opposite is the case. Health policy is a matter for each individual country. We will not be forced to join a European army. Our neutrality is fully protected. European military activity is directed at peacekeeping and crisis intervention and participation is an option for any country. We have heard this argument over the past 40 years and it is not true.

We must bring that debate to the people. I have attended a number of meetings on the treaty and this is the story that comes up all the time. I am asked whether we will have a super state and be conscripted into an army. That debate must be brought forward by all the political parties.

The treaty also gives a legal basis for combating climate change. This is the first time this issue has been included in an EU treaty and it is most welcome considering what could happen to our environment over the next decade. It is much easier for a European Union of 27 countries to deal with climate change on a broader basis than for one small individual country to deal with it. I welcome that part of the treaty.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is present in the Chamber. In the area of justice and home affairs, particularly combating international terrorism, drug and human trafficking, the reform treaty provides for majority voting in the fields of criminal law and police co-operation. While there is scope for all people to cross borders freely, there is also scope for criminals to cross borders freely. There must be police co-operation in all areas to prevent drug trafficking in the free movement area.

The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, referred briefly to the farming community. For the first time, the European Parliament as well as the Agriculture and Fisheries Council will have a say on agriculture issues. Farmers will be able to lobby and influence their MEPs on matters of concern in agricultural policy. These are just some of the facts in the Lisbon treaty.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, which is chaired by Deputy Bernard Durkan. Many groups have appeared before that committee in recent months, including the social partners and other groups with an interest in the treaty. The committee has a role to play. Next week we will meet some of the opponents and it will be interesting to hear what they have to say. The social partners have a very important role to play in actively promoting the treaty, particularly those in favour. Sometimes people do not have confidence in politicians which is why organisations like the IFA and IBEC have a very important role. The Joint Committee on European Affairs will take the information campaign to the electorate and will visit five or six different venues in the next three months. We will have speakers and will give information on the treaty. We hope that those meetings will be well attended. This is a good treaty that is ambitious, balanced and looks to the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Brian Lenihan): I am very happy to have the opportunity to speak on this debate on the reform treaty. It is an important development in Europe and there are compelling reasons for Ireland to support it. My favourite definition of Europe has always been that of General de Gaulle, that Europe should extend from the Atlantic to the Urals. We have gone a long way in that direction since we became members of the European Economic Community in 1973.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I am not sure we want to go that far.