25 February 2008

Quo vadis, Europa?

Two weeks ago the National Forum on Europe (NFOE), which has promoted and facilitated a national debate on the European Union (EU), on its future and on Ireland's role in it since its establishment by the Taoiseach in October 2001, held a public discussion in Waterford. It was the second in a series of nine regional meetings to introduce to the general public the Treaty of Lisbon and open a public debate on it, in preparation for the Referendum with which the Irish people can accept or reject this latest of the European amendment treaties later this year.

Of the currently 27 member states of the EU, Ireland is the only one to hold a Referendum over the new treaty, as it is specified in our Constitution. Everywhere else the decision will be made by the national parliaments, with no direct involvement of the people. The reasons for this vary, as in several European countries there is no tradition of referenda, while in others the government does not see a need for asking their population or - like in France and the Netherlands - is keen to avoid such an undertaking. In both countries the forerunner of the Lisbon Treaty, which was known as the European Constitution, was rejected by the voters in national referenda in 2005.

Following these rejections, the TCE (Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe) had to be abandoned and new negotiations among the member states, their governments and the EU Commission produced eventually the Treaty of Lisbon, which was signed by the EU Heads of Government in the Portuguese capital on December 13th, 2007.
The Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community, as it is called in full, needs to be ratified by all member states before the end of this year, in order to come into effect on January 1st, 2009.

Five of the member states - France, Hungary, Malta, Romania and Slovenia - have already completed the ratification process, and the European Parliament also voted in favour of the new treaty last Wednesday. Given the wide-ranging changes it will impose on the EU structure and the future operation of the Union, the treaty is surprisingly low on the agendas of many member states. But in Ireland, the only country required to hold a referendum, the debate on the treaty and its many elements will be most elaborate, vociferous and emotional.

Two weeks ago in Waterford, and last week in Kilkenny and Tullamore (where further meetings took place), I got a good idea where this debate is now heading. The larger parties - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour - are in favour of the Lisbon Treaty and campaign for a yes vote, with many business people and business organisations like IBEC following suit. They form a large bloc which includes government and opposition, and have certainly an advantage in numbers as well as money and general support. The Green Party is split over the issue (for details see my entry from 20 January) and now - bizarrely - campaigns on both sides of the argument. While Green Senator Deirdre de Burca was the main speaker for the treaty at the NFOE meeting in Kilkenny last Monday, the head of the party in Waterford (and repeatedly their local candidate in every election for years) Brendan McCann and former Green MEP Patricia McKenna, for example, are vehemently against it. All Green TDs seem to be in favour, but large parts of the party's lower echelons and grassroot members appear to be - for various reasons - against the treaty.

Not surprisingly, the few remaining members of the PDs are pro treaty, while most of the smaller parties on the left of the political spectrum oppose it. Sinn Fein is the only main party in Ireland that clearly stands and campaigns against the treaty. They are joined by a very mixed bunch of small parties (like the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party), organisations like the Euro-skeptic think thank Libertas, and various groups and individuals, including a number of independent politicians. The most prominent of them is the independent MEP for the constituency of Southern Ireland, Kathy Sinnott (above centre), who was the main anti-treaty speaker at the NFOE Waterford meeting two weeks ago. The veteran European and former Fine Gael MEP John Cushnahan (above right) was the main speaker for the treaty. All the public meetings were presided over by NFOE Chairman, Senator Maurice Hayes (above left), a former senior civil servant from Northern Ireland.

There is not enough space here to outline the whole debate, but I will revisit the issue in future, when the lines of argument become clearer. For now I just like to raise what is for me the key question regarding the Lisbon Treaty, as well as any other development of the EU: Quo vadis, Europa? (Where are you going, Europe?)
Having read the text of the new treaty - as much as it was accessible to me - it appears to me that despite some major changes in the European Union's structure there is no clear direction defined for its future. When the original European Economic Community (EEC) was formed in 1957 by the six founder states (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), it was envisaged as a common market and - as the late President of France, General Charles de Gaulle used to call it frequently - a "Europe of the Fatherlands". Elements of this idea are still present, so is this what we want Europe to be?

Others see the EU basically as a big, but powerless talking shop, some kind of smaller European version of the United Nations, with plenty of papers, committees, civil servants, interpretors and translators. In their opinion everything should be discussed and eventually regulated at European level, but all power would remain with the member states and their national politicians and parliaments.

The most daring view of the EU's future goes much further and wants us to become the "United States of Europe", modeled on the USA, with a completely integrated central power and states relegated to the second level of political power and influence.
In the Lisbon Treaty are elements of this already, such as the new permanent EU President and the new foreign affairs supremo, who is supposed to be responsible for all external affairs of the Union. But there are also elements of the other two models present, so I wonder if those who wrote and negotiated the new treaty actually know themselves where Europe is heading in the future?

I asked this question at the Waterford meeting, and Kathy Sinnott, MEP said that it was the best question she had heard all evening. Thank you very much for the kind comment. I am no politician and have no vested interests or axes to grind. I am just a humble historian with an independent mind who also analyses politics and comments on it. And I see it as one of my little purposes in life to highlight certain elements others tend to overlook.

Ms. Sinnott's answer was very interesting, as well as a little frightening. She said that we would not become a "United States of Europe" following the American model (and she should know that better than anyone, as she was born in Chicago). The old "Europe of the Fatherlands" was still in some way on the books, but no longer in the sense Charles de Gaulle would have understood and liked. But there is apparently a new dimension to the EU, not yet so clear to most of us in the West. MEPs from the new member states, who were not so long ago still part of the Communist East, have told Kathy Sinnott that the more they see and learn of the EU and its structure, the more it reminds them of the old Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc.

This is a shocking revelation, which calls for further and deeper investigation. I will look into the matter myself and discuss it further with others, before I come back here to write more about it.
For now I can only advice everyone in Ireland to become familiar with the text and details of the Lisbon Treaty, and - if at all possible - attend at least one of the public meetings the NFOE is holding in various parts of the country. The next one takes place tonight at the Linenhall Centre in Castlebar, Co. Mayo. (For more details see the list below)

In a few months we will be asked to vote on the treaty in a Referendum, the outcome of which is of great significance for all of us in Ireland, our country and Europe as a whole. Never before in recent times has so much responsibility been placed in the hands of the Irish people, and I hope we will decide wisely on the matter. Otherwise Dustin will not be the only turkey we are sending to Europe...

The Emerald Islander

Further public meetings of the National Forum on Europe:
  • 25 February, 8 p.m. - Linenhall Centre, Castlebar, Co. Mayo
  • 4 March, 12.30 p.m. - Liberty Hall, Dublin City
  • 10 March, 7 p.m. - Old Ground Hotel, Ennis, Co. Clare
  • 11 March, 7.30 p.m. - Brandon Hotel, Tralee, Co. Kerry
  • 26 March, 8 p.m. - Radisson Hotel, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal

6 comments:

Caoimhin said...

Very enlightening post, thanks!
The recent defeat of Amendment 32 of the (Richard) Corbett Report brings into question the motives and feelings of European government members as to their respect for democracy.
Considering the empty chatter about the referendum enhancing democracy in Europe, the fact that it is not being subjected to a very democratic approval process, only leaves the Irish with one option. Regardless of our feelings, pro or con, the referendum must be defeated here as a show of respect to the rest of Europe's population who have been denied this right.

Nicholas Simms said...

Just one comment in relation to your point about the old Soviet bloc. It is worth pointing out that most of the members of that bloc could not wait to get out of it. At the same time, most of those members were very anxious to join the European Union. A few years ago somebody introduced me to the concept of "soft power". The best example of this idea of soft power is the influence exercised by the European Union on countries wishing to join it.

Alexander "Sunny" Bergen said...

Very interesting, indeed. Sadly the people of the united Kingdom are not as lucky as the Irish. We will have no vote on our future in Europe, since the government is refusing to hold a referendum, despite a previous promise to do so. I think that Labour is very much afraid (and rightly so) that they would lose such a vote and then would face a real crisis, both on EU level and in domestic politics.
I hope that the Irish people will be so kind and vote NO. Being the only EU nation to have the chance, the future of Europe, and in particular the freedom of all the people in the EU, is now placed in the hands of the Irish. Please, be so kind and wise to say NO to this treaty that - if it is passed - would end democracy as we know it in the EU.

THE EMERALD ISLANDER said...

Well, Caoimhin, you are right that the defeat of Amendment 32 was a very dark hour in the history of European democracy. And it should indeed give those who have doubts about the Lisbon Treaty even more reason and motivation to vote NO in the Referendum. We might indeed have to make a decision here not just for our own little island, but for all of the EU and the hundreds of millions of citizens deprived of a vote on it.

THE EMERALD ISLANDER said...

A very good point, Nicholas Simms. It is indeed the "soft power" that gives us the great strength we have in the EU. Even though there have been some minor military missions under the EU flag, most of the "hard power" that is available to Europe is organised in NATO.
And countries like the USA and the UK who still very much believe in the heavy use of "hard power", have lost more by doing it than they gained.

You are also correct to point out that the countries of the former "Comecon" and "Warsaw Pact" could not get out quick enough. This had mostly economical reasons, and was only secondarily political. In fact some of these countries have by now realised that not everything is fun and gold in the West. And people in the former East also remember with fondness the high quality and free education and health service they did enjoy under the old system. All this is gone now, and competition is the only rule we have. I do not want to sound pessimistic, but if we go down the wrong road with the EU, in the future there might be some countries wanting to leave as well.

THE EMERALD ISLANDER said...

Well, Alexander, I have only one vote like everyone else. But I will make good and responsible use of it.

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