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