Tuesday, 8 April 2008
Lisbon Reform Treaty: Statements (Resumed).
I also welcome the delegation from Algeria with whom I have had the opportunity to join today. Je souhaite la bienvenue aux membres de la délégation algérienne. C'est la première fois qu'ils nous rendent visite ici. Je veux souhaiter la bienvenue À tout le monde. This is a useful debate and I am delighted the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, is present. I have found the debate of considerable interest to me.
I have reserved my position. Today groups arguing for a "no" vote came before the Joint Committee on European Affairs. I was disappointed to discover that at least one of them, Libertas, refused to come, and I do not know why. They also refused to come to the Forum on Europe the other day as well. I am just surprised at this from somebody who is voting "no".
I made it clear that I still have an open mind. I want to hear the arguments for and against, and that is why it is so logical to have a good debate. I was delighted to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, state that we must avoid threats, abuse and language that has been used sometimes in the past few weeks.
Today's debate at the Joint Committee on European Affairs was useful. Three different delegations came in and spoke. One of them, Mr. Roger Cole from the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, spoke about the concern for neutrality. I was reminded of my son in law. I have five children — two girls and three boys. We sent them all to France to school before they were 14 because somebody said that if one learns a language before one is 14, it is possible to speak it without accent. The two girls promptly fell in love with Frenchmen at the age of 14 and are now both married to Frenchmen. The family home of one of those Frenchmen, Nicolas de Schonen, where they now live, is in Soissons, about 80 km north-east of Paris. It was damaged severely in 1870 when the Germans decided to visit Paris. They stopped there, there was a battle there and the house was destroyed. It was rebuilt a few years later. In 1914, the Germans again decided to visit Paris and again the house was destroyed, and from the war reparations it was rebuilt. In 1940, the Germans made it their headquarters and the Americans bombed the house. This is to give the House some idea of what happened. We in Ireland are inclined to forget that in those years three wars took place and since 1945 there has not been anything like such a European war. On that entire area of neutrality and of the belief that we can keep peace, we must give credit to the European movement.
Mr. Roger Cole spoke of his concern about collective self-defence which is included in this reform treaty. Collective self-defence is exactly what we need. It seems so important. If we in Ireland were ever attacked, I would like to think our colleagues in Europe would come to help us.
Mr. Kieran Allen represented a different group and I was pleased to hear his view. One of his concerns was the quotation in the debate that the treaty includes "a system ensuring that competition is not distorted". I queried this, asking that surely he did not want competition that is distorted and it turned out he did. That opened my eyes. I find being able to query and ask questions of those who are opposed and those who are in favour is useful.
I was concerned about something reported today in the newspaper in connection with the French view on taxation. It was a quote from later in that article or elsewhere. It seems there was some sort of agreement in Europe not to bring up contentious issues until the Irish have had their referendum. I would be glad to hear the Minister of State on this matter. Is this possible? Is there a behind-the-scene call asking those who want to make changes in Europe not to raise them because they will only concern the Irish and the treaty might be rejected?
Maybe so. The reason for this reform treaty — there is little doubt it came from the Laeken Declaration originally — and for the constitutional change is efficiency. Therefore, I have examined it to see if there are efficiencies, and some of them make a great deal of sense.
I want the Minister of State to respond to this later. Ms Patricia McKenna made two points that I have not heard previously. One of them was that the member states, in the previous document, proposed the Commissioner that they wished to appoint, and that word "proposed" has been changed to "make a suggestion". There may be no change in the meaning of these wordings, but it would concern me if there are changes taking place and we do not understand the nuances behind them.
The other point Ms McKenna raised related to taxation and to the amendment to Article 113. The Minister of State made it clear that taxation is excluded from all of this.
I quoted the Laeken Declaration earlier today when the President of the European Parliament was here. The declaration also spelled out an exciting role for the EU in the new globalised world that was emerging in 2001. It stated:
The role it has to play is that of a power resolutely doing battle against all violence, all terror and all fanaticism, but which also does not turn a blind eye to the world's heart-rending injustices. In short, a power wanting to change the course of world affairs in such a way as to benefit not just the rich countries but also the poorest. A power seeking to set globalisation within a moral framework, in other words to anchor it in solidarity and sustainable development.
That is heady stuff. Perhaps it is a little strange for us to look back today and recognise it as the start of a long and tortuous process that took place, but we owe the people of Ireland a duty to carry out diligently the necessary scrutiny on this treaty. That is what we are doing here today and, I hope, in the next few weeks.
Surely we have another responsibility as well. It is a responsibility taken by us, not just as Irish men and women but as Europeans. We are in the process of building a supranational structure under which our children and grandchildren must live. In this reform treaty we are taking a decisive step to shape the Europe of the future and it is incumbent on us to ask ourselves carefully if this is really the way we want to go. Does this treaty live up to the Laeken Declaration or does it undermine the fine principles and aspirations on which the reform project was launched? If we have any doubts about that issue, now is the time to voice them, when we still have an opportunity to affect the course the future Europe will take. If we stay silent now, we are agreeing to one particular way forward for Europe and turning our back on any other. Therefore, the forthcoming referendum will pose the Irish people with some of the most important and fundamental questions they have ever had put to them. In preparing for that referendum, we must treat this issue with all the seriousness it deserves. The Irish people will not be bullied or blackmailed, as the Minister of State said, into giving one particular answer or the other. They will demand a reasoned debate and my hope is that they will get it.
At Mass on Sunday, I picked up a newspaper I had not seen before called Alive! and was surprised by what I read. If this newspaper is in every church in the country and is, therefore, widely read, I am surprised by the amount of debate that needs to be addressed. I should go through the matters debated in it because we must answer them. One letter to the newspaper stated that:
At present the EU sets the policy that its 27 member states are likely to follow at the UN. However, countries can still take the above type of principled stand. Under the Lisbon Treaty this will no longer be possible. Under Article 24.3 of the treaty it will be illegal for any country to have its own foreign policy.
I do not know if this is correct but I doubt if it is. Another article stated that:
The EU funded embryo research in 2006; (b) gave EU taxes to fund abortion in developing countries in 2002, and (c) in 2000 insisted that "quickie" divorce apply to Irish citizens.
They are the sort of issues that have been raised. I welcome the debate because if these issues are being raised and not answered, we must ensure we answer them, that the debate is rational and effective and that every side gets a chance to voice its opinion. I believe that when I come to cast my vote, I will have done so in a rational way that listened to all sides and took them into account in making that decision.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad and thank him for his very interesting presentation on the Lisbon treaty. He came to the House on the same day as the President of the European Parliament who addressed us here and touched on the Lisbon treaty in his presentation, which we were fortunate to hear.
I welcome that the President of the European Parliament addressed the Upper House today. This trend should be encouraged. National parliaments and Ministers representing us should make the institutions of the European Union aware that it is very positive that we can put a human face on the institutions of the European Union and that national parliaments, particularly upper houses, can play an important role in terms of facilitating visits by the President of the European Parliament, other parliamentarians and commissioners when directives are being prepared so that there is an opportunity to counter the sense of disconnect between what is happening at national level and what is happening in Brussels or at European level. It is to be hoped today's visit was a very welcome start to that process.
I will touch on the European Parliament's role in respect of the Lisbon treaty. Obviously, the treaty will greatly strengthen the powers of the European Parliament, which is a very welcome development. By strengthening the powers of the European Parliament and significantly increasing its co-decision making powers it will reduce the influence of executive power within the European Union. It seems that, to date, the power wielded by both the European Commission and the Council of Ministers could be described as executive power. While the Council of Ministers is made up of representatives of governments, the power it uses is a form of executive power. The strengthening of the European Parliament and its co-decision making powers strengthens the overall democratic legitimacy of the European Union and for that reason it is to be welcomed.
The one concern that has been expressed to me as a member of the Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs by groups that have come to the committee is whether the co-decision making process will slow down decision making in the European Union. I would like to hear the Minister of State's view on that.
It is a very positive development that under the terms of the Lisbon treaty, the European Parliament will have the power to elect the President of the Commission. It will not just have the power of assent but will have the power to elect or refuse the nomination of the European Council in respect of the President of the Commission. This will mean that the largest grouping in the European Parliament will have a very important say in future legislation because, as we know, the Commission has the powers of legislative initiative at a European level. If the socialist group is the largest party in the European Parliament, we are likely to see a socialist-inclined President of the European Commission which could have a significant impact on the type of legislation we could expect to see proposed by the Commission. It is an important new power for the European Parliament and should concentrate the minds of the European electorate on the fact that the people they elect to the European Parliament in June 2009 will have an important say in the composition of the Commission and, therefore, the overall legislative output of the European Union.
The one issue about the treaty that concerns me is the fact that in terms of improving and strengthening the powers of the European Parliament, it does not add significantly to its decision-making role in terms of trade policy. The issue of trade policy has been an area of concern for many development organisations and others who see much secrecy and a lack of transparency surrounding the way in which trade policy is decided at a European level. The US Houses of Congress have much greater powers than the European Parliament has had to date in respect of formulating and deciding trade policy. Unfortunately, the Lisbon treaty only gives the European Parliament powers of assent rather than significant decision-making powers. Could the Minister of State comment on this?
In respect of the representation we will have on the European Commission, the equality of rotation seems to be the important principle. The larger member states have accepted that. What will be important in the future is that the cabinet of the various Commissioners will include a representative number of Irish officials along with officials from all the other member states. If member states feel that they are represented at an official level within the Commission that can adequately reflect the perspectives and interests of that particular member state, the fact that there might not be a Commissioner representing each member state will not be such a significant issue.
Another feature of the Lisbon treaty worth highlighting is the fact that it strengthens and makes more meaningful the concept of European citizenship both through the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which strengthens and gives a legal basis to citizens' rights across the European Union, and the introduction of the citizens' initiative which gives citizens a say in the kind of legislation they would like to see. It is possibly not as strong as some citizens would like it to be but it gives them the power to petition the European Commission to introduce new legislation.
The Lisbon treaty also strengthens the EU's external coherence which, again, must be a good thing because it will strengthen the European Union's influence globally. When we look at issues such as climate change, energy security and migration which are all underpinned by the values so clearly expressed in the Lisbon treaty, especially in its early stages, the strengthening of the EU's external coherence certainly is important.
The Minister of State and the President of the European Parliament spoke today about the values of the European Union, the fact that we are a community of values and the importance of European values and promoting them at a global level. It is important that as well as seeing the positive elements in terms of what the European Union represents, we are able to accept criticism. There is a danger that if the European Union becomes unable to listen to the critical voices that perhaps are pointing to some aspects of its functioning that are less than perfect at the moment, we will just listen to the positive aspects of the functioning of the European Union and there will be more and more unwillingness to look at some aspects of its functioning that may not be to the satisfaction of its citizens or particular interest groups within the European Union. It is important that in addition to being able to see and promote positive values, there is always the capacity to listen to critical voices, absorb and respond to that criticism and improve the areas of functioning of the European Union where necessary.
The Green Party is delighted that the campaign on the Lisbon treaty has kicked off. We would like to play our part in promoting the treaty to the people of Ireland and hopefully seeing a positive vote for it on 12 June 2008.