Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Charter of Fundamental Rights: Statements
Dick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this opportunity to discuss the charter which I believe will be one of the most important elements introduced into European law if we vote "Yes" next week. I intend to explain the background of the charter which is often overlooked. I will also take this opportunity to respond to a number of extremely erroneous and false claims set before the public.
The Lisbon treaty will confer legal status on the charter of fundamental rights. This will mark a significant development for the status of fundamental rights under the current treaties. Ireland has been extremely supportive of the charter since its agreement in 2000 and since the convention was established in 1999 to draft its provisions. The charter is the first formal EU document to combine and declare all the values and fundamental rights to which EU citizens are entitled in their dealings with EU institutions and member states in the application of EU law.
If the treaty is ratified the charter becomes law and makes our rights as citizens more visible. The preamble of the charter speaks of a common resolve of the people of the EU "to share a peaceful future based on common values". It continues:
Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.
I fail to understand how any person calling himself or herself civilised or a democrat could find anything to which to object within it. The charter is uplifting in its language and noble in its intent. The fact that it has been demonised during the campaign, particularly by the Libertas group, speaks to the credibility of some in the "No" campaign. The extent to which Libertas is willing to distort the Lisbon treaty and to demonise the charter is demonstrated by the two most outrageous claims made in this campaign, namely, the assertion that the charter could lead to the detention of children under three years of age and that it could lead to the reintroduction of the death penalty. I will speak more about both claims later.
It takes a very negative organisation to convey its messages in such a grotesque form. However, that is what Libertas has set out to do. These must be just about the most monstrous charges that have ever been made during 35 years of referendum campaigns in this country, and that is saying something. It is ludicrous to suggest that the European Union is interested in incarcerating children and even more outrageous to suggest it wishes to reintroduce the death penalty.
It is ludicrous also to suggest that the 27 member states, their Governments and the batteries of lawyers who follow treaty negotiations would all have agreed to or, alternatively, missed out on these wild notions. Are we seriously to believe that Libertas is so inspired that it alone spotted these while they passed by everyone else? I suggest not. I suggest that the Irish people are being fed the most far-fetched notions about this treaty by this organisation.
What is more, I believe the Irish people are now alert to them. We have heard their claims about taxation, abortion and the world trade talks. These claims have been rejected by, amongst others, the independent Referendum Commission, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland, the Catholic bishops speaking through the Archbishop of Dublin, IBEC, the American Chamber of Commerce and the European Commission to mention a few.
The rights identified in the charter are drawn from the Union's own law, such as equal pay for men and women, existing international treaties, most notably the European Convention on Human Rights, and the constitutional traditions common to Member States, such as the right to property.
The charter is important because it highlights the values on which the Union is founded. It brings together in one document the fundamental rights available to citizens under EU law. Its primary significance is, therefore, that it provides clarity to citizens and to the court of justice of the European Union on the range of rights available. This point was made recently by a letter from Mr. John Monks, the general secretary of the ETUC, the organisation representing trade unions from all over Europe in Brussels. Mr. Monks called for the early ratification of the treaty to give effect to the charter.
The original European Communities treaties drafted in the 1950s did not contain a comprehensive set of fundamental rights. However as the Union developed, it became apparent that it would be necessary for Community law to protect the human and fundamental rights of individual citizens. In the absence of fundamental rights in the original EC treaty, the European Court of Justice, ECJ, therefore, began to formally recognise the existence of fundamental rights as one of the "general principles of Community law". The concept of fundamental rights as a "general principle of Community law" was well recognised at the time of Ireland's accession to the Community in 1973.
Although the European Court of Justice was the first EU institution to recognise fundamental rights, other EU institutions drafted catalogues of rights in the 1970s. Member states also acknowledged fundamental rights in preamble to the Single European Act. In the Maastricht treaty on European Union, it was stated the EU would respect fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and the constitutional traditions common to the member states. Following this, the June 1993 European Council adopted conclusions containing the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which made respect for human rights a condition of membership of the EU. The Amsterdam treaty made it a legal requirement that candidate countries would have to respect fundamental rights to join the Union. It also introduced a provision for sanctioning member states that seriously and persistently breached human rights, while the Nice treaty introduced a preventative mechanism to deal with member states where there is a serious risk of such breaches occurring.
While the Union acknowledged the existence of fundamental rights, no authoritative catalogue of rights was available. When the Nice treaty was being drafted, a convention was established and asked to draft a charter to bring together the fundamental rights protected in the EU. The Government representative at the convention was Michael O'Kennedy, and the Oireachtas was represented by the current chairman of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, Deputy Bernard Durkan, and Des O'Malley. The Charter of Fundamental Rights was adopted initially by the EU institutions at Nice as a political commitment to fundamental rights. During negotiations on the constitutional treaty, it was agreed the charter should be given legally binding force. There was considerable enthusiasm for this measure in the convention because members such as myself saw the move as adding considerably to the Union's social dimension. I recall sitting through long sessions, particularly on the social Europe section, where there was enthusiastic support for the incorporation of the charter in European law. For example, I recall Proinsias De Rossa saying we were making one of the most important fundamental breakthroughs, a sentiment with which I agreed completely. It was decided the charter would be given the same legal status in the Lisbon treaty but that it would not form part of its text. That is one of the answers to those who say we can vote "No" for a better "Yes". The position of the charter slipped between the first and second treaties because the UK had difficulties with it being included.
The original convention that drafted the charter also provided a set of explanations explaining the provenance and background to the rights set out in the charter. They were also drafted at the request of a number of member states, including Ireland, which wished to ensure the charter consolidated existing rights rather than radically altering them. The explanations are not legally binding, but will provide useful guidance for the European Court of Justice. The explanations were amended during the negotiations on the constitutional treaty to reflect the changes to the so-called horizontal clauses in the charter.
Having explained the background to the charter, I will highlight its contents because they have been grotesquely misrepresented in the debate in Ireland. The charter sets out in clear terms the rights that must be respected by the Union's institutions and the Member States when they are implementing EU law. The charter comprises 54 articles, divided into seven sections entitled dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens' rights, justice and general or horizontal provisions governing the interpretation and application of the charter. The rights covered are diverse and include the prohibition of torture, respect for private and family life, the right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial and citizens' rights such as the right to vote and stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament.
For example, from a trade union point of view, the charter provides clarity on the extent of workers' rights. The general secretary of IMPACT has described it as a "prize" that trade unions across Europe had pursued for "many, many years". He is correct. I refer to the letter from Mr. John Monks in which he said he wanted member states to ratify the treaty quickly because it would give legal effect to the charter and that had the charter been law prior to the recent court cases it would have informed the judgments handed down. He recently stated he wants to see a social progress clause added to the treaty but that it would be a separate measure. He made clear, "To reopen the Treaty at this stage is neither practical nor desirable". He acknowledged there is an inherent danger in reopening the treaty. Ireland has achieved absolute equality, for a small state, in the negotiations. One cannot do better than equality in negotiations. From the point of view of workers and people interested in human and fundamental rights, we have a charter. It will not be improved by a return to negotiations. David Begg, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said it would "be a serious error of judgment to miss the opportunity to give legal effect to the Charter".
The charter has been the subject of some of the most destructive and untruthful commentary in the debate in Ireland. Among other areas, the charter deals with the prohibition of child labour, fair and just working conditions and protection in the event of unfair dismissal. The provisions highlight the Union's values in the area of workers' rights and will have relevance in the event of future cases at the European Court of Justice on labour issues. The charter also contains a number of so-called horizontal provisions clarifying the scope of its application, for example, providing that the charter does not extend the scope of application of EU law.
Bearing in mind these horizontal provisions and the explanations of the charter, I will underline what the charter does not do, particularly in light of the more extraordinary claims that have been made to date. These are dishonest claims that define the type of campaign that some opponents are running. They are wild-eyed claims which, in the past few days, have given the electorate cause to take a closer look at the people making them and to question the agenda behind the case they are advancing.
It is important to be clear that the charter does not introduce new rights previously unrecognised by member states. It does not replace or dilute the constitutions of member states, as it applies only to the EU institutions and to the member states when they are implementing Union law nor does it extend in any way the competences of the EU. In recent weeks, I have heard an expanding list of scare-mongering claims about the charter such as it will be used to introduce abortion — which, thankfully, the Referendum Commission hit on the head earlier — hard drugs, prostitution, the detention of children or the death penalty in Ireland. I reassure the public this will not happen.
The charter will not extend the capacity of the EU to interfere in areas of domestic competence. For example, where the member states act within their own competence with regard to the prohibition on drugs, the EU has no jurisdiction. As far as abortion is concerned, Ireland's position is protected by the Maastricht protocol on the right to life of the unborn which is unaffected by the Lisbon treaty. I am delighted that Archbishop Martin has confirmed this in the clearest language. The EU institutions have fully respected Ireland's position in this regard and will continue to do so. Any suggestion that the charter overrides the provisions of the protocol, which specifically states that nothing in the EU treaties or any further amendments to them can affect the application in Ireland of our constitutional protection of the unborn, is at best wilfully misleading. It is simply a distortion of the facts, the truth and the reality and is intended to confuse and mislead. Sadly, those people who propagate this particularly mendacious approach have had unfortunate effects in some parts of the public
I find it extraordinary that opponents claim that the Charter of Fundamental Rights could re-introduce the death penalty in Ireland. Such a claim, based on a spurious misreading of the explanations of the charter, leaves the public nonplussed and questioning the credibility that attaches to those who make the claim and to the other far-fetched claims on issues such as taxation and abortion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The European Union actively campaigns for the universal abolition of the death penalty. Indeed, abolition of the death penalty is a requirement for countries seeking EU membership. This is the bizarre thing about the claim by Libertas. One cannot even apply to become a member of the EU if one retains the death penalty. The death penalty was completely abolished in Ireland in 2001 on foot of a constitutional referendum.
The opponents are using the explanations to the charter on which to base this claim and others, including the detention of young children. The explanations simply outline in certain areas the permissible limitations set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR, which Ireland ratified as far back as 1953. The claim about the detention of children goes back to a document which we ratified back in 1953 and which we incorporated into domestic law in this country in 2003. Significantly, the convention and protocols set out minimum standards for the protection of human rights and do not prevent more extensive protection under domestic law. Furthermore, they do not prevent more stringent standards emerging in international law. For example, the 13th protocol to the ECHR wholly outlaws the death penalty, even in time of war. Ireland and 22 of our fellow EU member states have ratified this protocol and the other four have signed it, subject to ratification.
There is absolutely no suggestion under either the ECHR or the charter that any member state would be required either to impose the death penalty or to detain children. Moreover, the EU does not even have competence in respect of the use of the death penalty or the detention of young children by member states. Once more, opponents of the treaty are attempting to mislead the voters with these wilfully unfounded allegations.
We must continue to embrace and protect the freedoms and principles as set out in the charter. To do otherwise is to reject the statement of fundamental values on which the Union is founded, values which are sacred to the Irish people. Conferring legal status on the charter is a progressive step for the Union and it is my view that the Government's endorsement of the charter will be shared by the Irish people when they vote next week. It is just one of the many positive aspects of the Lisbon treaty. Next week's referendum is an opportunity for Ireland to reaffirm our place in Europe and our standing as a guardian of human rights.
I will quote from the preamble of the charter which sets out clearly the principles and values which are central to the document and to the EU envisaged in the Lisbon treaty. It states:
Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.
It takes a very perverse and fevered mind to find anything to fear in those positive statements of human rights which most civilised people hold dear.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is not very often that I find myself in full agreement with him and the content of his speech but I certainly agree with practically all of his speech in respect of this subject, especially its refutation of some of the outrageous allegations that have been made throughout the debate on the Lisbon treaty.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is one of the most important features of the Lisbon reform treaty. Divided into six sections — dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens' rights and justice — it is based on the fundamental rights and freedoms recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights, the constitutional traditions of the member states, the Council of Europe's social charter, the Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers and other fundamental international conventions to which the Community, the Union and the member states are parties.
The charter is a radical document, a unique feature in the Union and one which I believe every citizen of the Union and its member states should read. It asserts in clear and readable language what the principles behind our Union are, what rights we all have within the Union and what rights we will share as a community of peoples in this Union of peoples.
The charter's origins date back to a European Council meeting held in June 1999 in Cologne. There, the leaders of Europe entrusted the drafting of this fundamental document to a convention created for that purpose. That convention first met in December 1999 and adopted a draft of the document less than one year later on 2 October 2000. Oireachtas Éireann was represented in the convention that drew up the document by the members mentioned by the Minister of State, including Deputy Bernard Durkan, Madeleine Taylor Quinn, Paschal Mooney and Desmond O'Malley of the Progressive Democrats. At a meeting held from 13 to 14 October 2000 in Biarritz, the European Council unanimously approved the draft and sent it to the Commission and the European Parliament. The European Parliament approved the text on 14 November 2000 and the Commission approved it on 6 December 2000, with the presidents of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission signing the charter on behalf of the respective institutions on 7 December 2000.
As the European Union itself notes:
The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out in a single text, for the first time in the European Union's history, the whole range of civil, political, economic and social rights of European citizens and all persons resident in the EU.
The then President of the Commission, Romano Prodi, summed up how the Commission sees the Charter. He stated:
In the eyes of the European Commission, by proclaiming the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Union institutions have committed themselves to respecting the Charter in everything they do and in every policy they promote . . . The citizens of Europe can rely on the Commission to ensure that the Charter will be respected.
Speaking on the same day in Nice, the President of the European Parliament, Mrs Nicole Fontaine, was similarly glowing in praise for the document and its importance. She said:
A signature represents a commitment . . . I trust that all the citizens of the Union will understand that from now on . . . the Charter will be the law guiding the actions of the Assembly ... From now on it will be the point of reference for all the Parliament acts which have a direct or indirect bearing on the lives of citizens throughout the Union.
Speaking five days later in Strasbourg, the then President of the European Council, Jacques Chirac, reacted to the text on behalf of the governments of the member states. He stated:
In Nice, we proclaimed the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, a text which is of major political importance. Its full significance will become apparent in the future and I wish to pay tribute to your Assembly for the major contribution it has made to its drafting.
Many people have spoken, correctly, about the difficulty in understanding the Lisbon treaty. If the treaty itself is full of complex, difficult language, the same cannot be said of the charter which has a clarity of language that would enable it to be read and, indeed, understood by schoolchildren and adults alike. The preamble of the document gives the reasons Europe needs the charter. It states "it is necessary to strengthen the protection of fundamental rights in the light of changes in society, social progress and scientific and technical developments by making those rights more visible in a Charter".
It is hard to find fault with a document like the charter which confirms that everyone has a right to life, that bans executions, cloning, torture and human trafficking, affirms respect for privacy as well as the right to marry, to freedom of religious thought and conscience, to fair and just working conditions, to collective bargaining and many other rights. It is a sign of the frequently ridiculous and off-the-wall claims of the "No" side in the referendum campaign on the Lisbon treaty that even the charter is now being misrepresented by the likes of Libertas.
Recently Libertas claimed on TV3 that the charter would effectively allow for internment of three year olds. Even by the bizarre standards of the campaign such a statement was mind-boggling. If ever there was a moment when the "No" campaign hit rock bottom, that was it. I wonder who Libertas thinks is running the European Union. All the treaty actually says is that children have a right to compulsory education. In other words, no neglectful parent can deny children a right to be educated. How Libertas can twist something as decent and positive as a right to education into some form of internment of children is beyond the logic of most people in this State. Yet it continues to peddle this ridiculous claim rather than admitting it has got it very badly wrong.
We are told that the treaty will not offer protection to workers. In fact, workers rights are stressed throughout the document. Article 28 speaks of the "Right of collective bargaining and action", Article 30 of the right of "Protection in the event of unjustified dismissal", while Article 31 refers to "Fair and just working conditions". Many unions would like more and I understand that. Nevertheless, this document is anything but anti-worker, a claim which is being peddled by some groups.
Apart from the ever more bizarre claims of Libertas, another of the weird claims about the charter is that it will introduce abortion to Ireland. It cannot do so because abortion is a matter for national law, while the charter is about EU law. These are two different types of law, two entirely different categories. Groups like Cóir seem not to understand, or do not want to understand, that difference. Not alone is abortion not part of EU law, Ireland has theMaastricht protocol as a second protection. To read the charter as an abortionists' charter is ridiculous, foolish, and suggests either a chronic lack of knowledge of the treaty or a desire to tell any old lie to frighten people into voting "No".
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a welcome addition to the body of EU law. It augments the rights we have built up under Bunreacht na hÉireann and the European Convention of Human Rights. I commend the Europe Union for producing this charter. It is something all our descendants will look at with pride, a clear statement of the fundamental rights we all share in the great European family of nations that is the European Union.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, to the House. I commend him on his speech and the detail therein and for his work on this campaign. He has campaigned throughout the country on the Lisbon treaty. Very few people have the knowledge of the Minister of State of the content of the treaty. He has made a very big impression and did so when he canvassed with me in County Roscommon recently. I also commend Senator Cummins for a fine report on the background to the charter and his rebuttal of many of the issues that were raised by other organisations.
The Lisbon treaty will result in greater recognition for two different, already existing, human rights documents. Some confusion has arisen between these two documents and it is important, therefore, to briefly discuss the different nature and origin of the two, before explaining why the greater recognition of both of these texts is one of the most compelling, and regrettably overlooked, reasons to support the treaty.
The European Convention on Human Rights entered into force in 1953 and created the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The ECHR is the cornerstone of human rights protection in Europe and the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including Ireland, are parties to the convention. The convention was incorporated into Irish domestic law by the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003.
The Lisbon treaty will require the EU to accede to the Council of Europe's European Convention on Human Rights. This means that the institutions of the EU, when making and implementing EU law, will be subject to the same judicial control in respect of human rights as the individual State parties to the convention. An individual EU citizen will be able to make a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against the EU. Citizens will also retain the right to make a complaint against their own country. At a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in April, the assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a report and resolution which I proposed on the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights, thus setting in motion what the Lisbon treaty will complete.
The ECHR and its permanent court have already contributed greatly to the vindication of human rights in Europe and to the improvement of domestic legislation in areas such as freedom of expression, criminal procedure and sexual orientation. The accession of the EU to the ECHR will add to the accountability and transparency of the European Union. The possible scrutiny of the actions of the Union's institutions by independent judges of the European Court of Human Rights can only strengthen the democratic credentials of Europe.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which we are discussing this evening, sets out the civil, political, economic and social rights recognised by the EU, including the rights that citizens currently enjoy under EU treaties and related case law, the European Convention on Human Rights; the social charters of the Union and the Council of Europe and the constitutional traditions and international obligations common of the member states. The charter was agreed at a special convention which met in 1999 and 2000 and was subsequently approved by the institutions of the EU. Currently, it is a political document that is not legally binding or judiciable.
The charter is a simple and excellent document. It covers some areas which are not explicitly mentioned by other human rights documents. It makes provision for questions which arise in light of modern medical technology which are not explicitly catered for in our Constitution or the ECHR. It specifies a right to the protection of personal data concerning a citizen. In light of recent losses of such data by various institutions throughout the EU it is particularly appropriate that this should be in the consideration of the EU bodies when legislating. The charter also specifies that "The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity".
The Lisbon treaty gives the charter the same legal value as the main treaties. It will enable the European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, to use the charter as a reference point on human rights. The principles of the charter will apply to EU member states only when they are implementing EU law. EU law only exists in areas in which the member states specifically grant the Union competency. The Government's White Paper on the Lisbon treaty verifies that the Charter "does not extend the field of application of Union law beyond the powers of the Union or establish any new power or task for the Union". Therefore, the Court of Justice will only review the actions of the member states when they fall within the scope of Union law, including fundamental rights standards. In addition, as with the ECHR, in practice the charter will be used primarily as a reference for national courts and with reference to its interpretation by the Irish Supreme Court.
There has been some speculation as to why the charter specifies rights in areas in which the EU has no competency or power. For example, the right to marry and found a family, the right to criminal due process and the right to health care are all specified in the charter but the EU has no jurisdiction in these areas. This has led some commentators to suggest that the European Court of Justice will be granted powers which would eclipse those of our Supreme Court.
However, the text of Article 51 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights is unambiguous. It is addressed to the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union with due regard for the principle of subsidiarity and to the member states only when they are implementing Union law. It is a natural consequence of the roots of the charter that it is a broad exposition of human rights. The completeness of the text in no way means that the scope of its jurisdiction can be beyond the limits specified by the charter itself. The granting of legal status to the charter is simply a consolidation of well-established principles as the charter is by its nature is a codification of rights already enjoyed by EU citizens at domestic and European level. The European Parliament, in its rules of procedure, has committed itself to being bound by the charter when exercising its legislative function. The European Commission also considers itself bound by the charter.
Many points made by opponents of the Lisbon treaty are a distortion of the facts. Some parties claim the full incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights will lead to the legalisation of abortion. However, a protocol to the Lisbon treaty provides that nothing in the treaty shall affect the application in Ireland of Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution. This was confirmed by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who has an expertise in this area. While he allayed the fears of many in this regard, those making the false claims are guided neither by the Pope nor the archbishops. They have their own theological assessment of the situation.
Some claim the charter will affect Irish sovereignty in decisions concerning marriage and the family. Article 9 of the charter states, "the right to marry and the right to found a family shall be guaranteed in accordance with national laws governing the exercise of these rights." The explanation of this article, also incorporated in the Lisbon treaty, states, "this article neither prohibits nor imposes the granting of the status of marriage to unions between people of the same sex."
The legal recognition of the Charter of Fundamental Rights proposed in the Lisbon treaty is a compelling argument in favour of the treaty and should enjoy widespread support. It will not drastically change the nature of our rights and obligations. The scope of its application is clearly limited by Article 51 of the charter itself and provisions such as the protocol on abortion. The document is essentially a consolidation of rights already enjoyed by citizens of all EU countries.
It will fully and formally recognise the criteria for the protection of human rights which the EU must abide by and recognise. Coupled with the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights, it will provide two strong, independent, Europe-wide human rights safeguard mechanisms. These are very strong grounds for supporting the ratification of the Lisbon treaty on Thursday week. People often ask me what is in the treaty for them. The treaty will guarantee their rights through the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Ireland will have an historic decision to make on 12 June. To vote "Yes" will keep Ireland in the heart of Europe. I hope people will come out in strength to vote "Yes" on 12 June.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, to the House and want to be associated with what was said earlier about his personal contribution to the campaign. It should be appreciated and acknowledged.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is seen by the Irish trade union movement as the prize in the Lisbon treaty. Three years ago when the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, was negotiating the treaty, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions made strong representations that the Charter of Fundamental Rights should form part of a future treaty. It was not acceptable at the time in Europe and the Government was not very enthusiastic about it either. Through a series of negotiations, the trade union movement made it clear to the Minister for Foreign Affairs that it saw no prospect of a treaty being adopted by the people without the Charter of Fundamental Rights being incorporated in it.
John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, was disgusted to find that he was presented in Ireland as being opposed to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. He shares my view, and that of the leadership of the Irish trade union movement, that the charter must be part of the treaty.
The charter brings to bear certain rights such as the freedom to join and form a trade union and be represented by one. What bothers me is that people believe this is not really a matter of concern. I remember in 1972 my wife had to resign — effectively she was sacked — as a teacher in a Dublin secondary school when we got married. It could not have happened two years later when Ireland joined the EEC. Every significant advance in workers' and women's rights has come from Europe. Those canvassing on doorsteps must point out this out to people.
Some of my colleagues with strong pro-church views would be well advised to read the charter. On the Order of Business this morning, I referred to a recent statutory instrument that provides for the Church of Ireland College of Education to ensure a quota of people from its own cultural background is available to it. The way we are dealing with it does not make me jump up and down with delight. However, I have no problem with a denomination maintaining its numbers.
Article 14.3 of the charter — which a well-known Irish commentator claimed is very difficult to read and understand — states:
The freedom to found educational establishments with due respect for democratic principles and the right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions shall berespected . . .
One wonders if those opposed to treaty on right-wing religious grounds have even read this article. Are they aware of this simple commitment to people's rights in this document? Contrarians — those opposed to the treaty for the sake of it and with whom I also share these benches — should be required to give an intellectual basis to their arguments against the treaty and the charter. The rights enshrined in the charter are important to many. Some Members may have exploited and survived the education system and the establishment. However, many people depend on this charter to have their rights articulated.
Article 20 states in the simplest terms, "Everyone is equal before the law." It goes on to say that any discrimination based on the grounds of race, sex, colour, ethnic origins, etc., is not allowed. The Minister of State might have been present in the House when on one occasion in the past 12 years, Senator Shane Ross tabled a Private Members' motion which I seconded, in an attempt to outlaw capital punishment in this country. People read this and think it is like the Middle Ages but these are matters we dealt with in the past ten or 15 years. The EU charter will be a protection for people in other countries where capital punishment is still legal. This charter is about protecting people and about advancing human rights, issues which no rational person would oppose.
The charter aims to develop cultural, linguistic and religious diversity. Táimid ag caint mar gheall ar dhaoine a thagann ó Ghaeltacht bheag ar imeall na hEorpa, mar shampla. Sa Nice treaty, tugadh stádas agus gradam nua don Ghaeilge. Bhí seans ann go nainmeofar an Ghaeilge mar cheann de theangacha oifigiúla na hEorpa. Dúradh go mbeadh fostaíocht i gceist do mhuintir na nGaeltachtaí agus daoine le Gaeilge sa Bhruiséil agus timpeall na hEorpa as translators or whatever. It has given a status to the Irish language which was never there before. We were fighting for it here over the years; we fought for it and spoke for it before the Nice treaty was being discussed. Tá sé againn anois. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go bhfuil sé mar phointe lárnach d'aon díospóireacht atá againn mar gheall ar an Ghaeilge sa chonradh.
I refer to that latter point and the issue of diversity and language because I want to recall that every time we have discussed the advancement of the European project, I have listened to people talk about how Irish culture would be lost, buried, choked, drowned or whatever, in the broader European culture, but this has not happened, it will not happen and on the basis of this charter, it cannot happen. The Community has a respect, recognition and a sacred place for diversity and cultural values, for languages, etc.
I come from the Gaeltacht and I spent my whole working career either as an educationalist, a trade unionist or a public representative. As an educationalist I struggled to get education included in the treaties. It was not allowed in the Treaty of Rome but was included in one of the later treaties. I made a recommendation to two Irish European Commissioners in order to have the matter advanced. As a trade unionist I fought for the rights that are contained in this charter. As a public representative I regularly criticised the fact that the elected strata in Europe did not have sufficient input or influence, to coin a phrase, I spoke with sadness about the democratic deficit. The democratic deficit has been significantly narrowed. This brings us to a far more democratic Europe than what was there previously. This should be said loudly and everywhere.
People have asked what happens if the treaty is rejected. They are afraid of the obvious. Nobody wants to say we can come back with Lisbon 2. I do not know whether it will be possible to come back with Lisbon 2 but I know for certain that with the change of government to the right in Italy and in a few other places, there is not the remotest chance, from the perspective of the left, that a revised treaty would contain the attractions that are in this treaty now. I will certainly support it.
I welcome the Minister of State and acknowledge and recognise the Trojan work he has undertaken in this campaign over the past number of months. I acknowledge his commitment and dedication to ensuring we will achieve a resounding "Yes" vote. I pay tribute to the Minister of State because he has always made himself available to all of us when we are out on the hustings trying to get our message across. He has always been available to help us along the way.
I am also pleased to speak on this issue. The European Union contributes to the preservation of the development of common values while respecting the diversity of the cultures and traditions of the people of Europe, as well as the national identities of the member states and the organisations of their public authorities at national, regional and local levels. The Union seeks to ensure free movement of persons, services, goods and capital. It is necessary to strengthen the protection of fundamental rights in light of the changes in society, social progress and technological developments, by making those rights more visible in the charter. Enjoyment of these rights also implies responsibilities and duties with regard to other persons, to the Community and to future generations. This treaty gives legal status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The charter is significant in moving towards a more citizen-friendly Europe. The European Union now places the individual at the heart of activities.
The charter consists of 54 articles and is divided into seven sections. I will not speak about all 54 articles because we would be here until doomsday. The most important sections are those dealing with dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity, citizens rights and justice. I refer to provisions for the prohibition of torture, respect for private and family life, the right to a remedy if one's rights are violated and the right to a fair trial. Citizens' rights include the right to vote. The charter will be legally binding on the institutions, on any offices, on the agencies representing the institutions. There is an obligation on all member states to provide appropriate judicial means to ensure effective protection of these rights and the right to effective remedy.
The charter includes certain economic and social rights. It recognises workers' rights, the right to information and to consultation, the right to collective bargaining and action. It protects workers against unjustified dismissal and protects the social rights such as workplace rights as well as the traditional civil, political and citizen rights.
I have listened to the distorted views expressed by the "No" campaign about abortion and the claim that the charter will interfere with our laws on abortion. Article 46.2 of the Constitution provides that a referendum is necessary before any amendment is made to the Constitution. This is my answer and I wish to make it as clear as possible. Anything to do with abortion has to go back to the national Parliament and to our Constitution. I have listened to Libertas saying that this charter may have implications such as the internment of children of three years of age. I cannot see the reasoning behind this argument. I do not believe anybody in their sane senses will bring up this argument on the doorsteps because it does not make sense. I have not met this yet at any door and I would be pleased to confront it if I did.
The Minister of State has made a clear statement. The Government has endorsed the charter. It is a progressive step for the Union. We must vote "Yes" in order to reaffirm our rights, to reaffirm our status in Europe. I have no doubt that the "Yes" vote will be carried clearly on 12 June. We must reaffirm our position. We are a model for Europe, but I do not want to find us being isolated and made to feel inferior should we decide to rebuff this treaty.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, to the House. The Labour Party is grateful to the Leader of the House for allowing a debate on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is a key aspect of the reform treaty. It is a simple and eloquent document containing just seven titles and 54 articles. These detail an inventory of fundamental rights granted to every citizen of the European Union.
The preamble to the charter states that "Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity". All of the Union's activities must ensure those basic functions. My colleagues have spoken eloquently about many of the articles in the treaty, but I wish to focus on four particular areas of the charter: human trafficking, privacy and the protection of personal data, workers' rights, and rights to non-discrimination.
Article 5 of the charter prohibits human trafficking in addition to ensuring the dignity of human beings by protecting citizens from forced or compulsory labour. It is estimated that over 100,000 people are trafficked through European countries every year, the overwhelming majority being women, many of them very young. An estimated 78% of those women originate in eastern European countries. With its established agreements in cross-border policing, the Lisbon treaty will go a long way to combat this horrific problem.
Article 8.2 protects the personal data of citizens. The charter states that "Everyone has the right of access to data which has been collected concerning him or her, and the right to have it rectified". We are now living through an information revolution whereby data is readily available and more accessible than ever before. Personal or private information is no exception to this reality. European governments are becoming increasingly concerned with the private information of citizens and residents, so people must be entitled to access, inspect and even correct all that information if it is recorded incorrectly. The charter guarantees that right. In an age where various details of a person can end up being filed or even published, citizens must be able to protect their privacy.
Title 4 of the charter is of great importance. It consists of a number of articles that ensure modern, just and varied rights for workers throughout the Union. For instance, the right to negotiate and establish collective agreements is enshrined in article 28, which gives workers in every corner of the Union the right to organise and deal collectively. Crucially, it recognises the right to strike. Protection against unfair dismissal is listed in article 30. This protection for every worker in the Union is bolstered by articles against discrimination that I will refer to in due course.
Article 34, which has become known as the social clause, is one of the most imaginative and bold aspects of an already comprehensive charter. It sets out objectives of the Union — including the promotion of full employment, social protection and a commitment to fight social exclusion — which will become central points around which all European polices must exist. An employed Europe is a prosperous Europe, but the charter recognises that when harder times arrive — as they can in an economic cycle — every citizen is fully entitled to social protection from his or her government.
Article 21.1 of the charter, which is a non-discrimination clause, protects the rights of every European citizen. No person or group of people can associate themselves with anything that makes them unique or special under the law. Most importantly, no person or group of people can be discriminated against for similar reasons. The article is even broader in its protection against discrimination than the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It lists 15 separate categories that go to make up the broadest set of protections against discrimination that can be seen anywhere.
Article 21.1 states that "Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited". That is just one article within the charter, which is one of the most important parts of the Lisbon reform treaty. It will establish a standard of European equality, including rights that can be fought for at European level if any country does not recognised them in domestic legislation. The charter is one of the most positive developments to have emanated from the EU and we welcome its attachment to the treaty.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am glad of this opportunity to debate the charter of fundamental rights that is attached to the Lisbon treaty by means of a protocol. The treaty sets out to bring the EU and its institutions closer to citizens, as well as making itself more relevant to the citizenry of the Union. The charter helps to do just that. The treaty itself clarifies and explains what EU citizenship means, it does not replace national citizenship but complements it. Therefore it is additional to, rather than replacing, an individual's national citizenship. People may ask what EU citizenship means, why it is so important and what added value it bestows. The treaty clearly outlines that the EU is a community of values. Even though it comprises 27 member states with diverse cultures, traditions and backgrounds, they have common values, including human dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity, democracy and the rule of law. More specifically, the charter sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms to which not just EU citizens but also all those legally resident in the EU are entitled. The Green Party believes this is an very significant and positive element of the overall treaty. Effectively, this is a progressive bill of rights, which reflects best practice in the many areas it touches upon, including civil, political, social and economic rights.
Those working in the human rights field know there is quite a battle to get states to recognise not just traditional civil and political rights but also to extend that recognition to social and economic rights. This is what the charter does by enshrining social and economic rights in addition to civil and political ones. Therefore, the EU will have its own bill of rights. Although some have said there is nothing new in it — in a strict sense that is true — the charter pulls together rights from various international treaties. The charter has existed since 2000, although it did not have legal status until it was proposed as part of the Lisbon treaty. In addition, it includes constitutional traditions and provisions of individual member states, some of which are reflected in rights contained in the charter. Even though they are not new rights, by attaching them to the treaty via a protocol they become more visible, thus providing a focus point around which citizens and others legally resident in the EU can mobilise. They will be very important in future given the inevitable struggles we witness within states and polities such as the EU, where citizens seek to have their rights vindicated. Those rights are clearly and visibly outlined in this charter.
It is important the European Union has taken this step because it has in many ways presented itself to citizens as an alternative to unfettered, free market economic globalisation. In a sense the EU is a project which sets out to democratise globalisation. The Charter of Fundamental Rights strengthens the Union's social and environmental dimension, a development citizens should recognise as positive.
The Green Party welcomes the rights and freedoms set out in the charter. Chapter 1, on dignity, contains important provisions and rights for citizens and legal residents of the European Union in the area of the right to integrity of the person. It is made clear, for instance, that in the fields of medicine and biology the free and informed consent of persons is required according to procedures laid down by the law. The section also includes a prohibition on making the human body and its parts a source of financial gain and prohibits the reproductive cloning of human beings. Ten or 15 years ago, we would have considered it fanciful and far-fetched to set out such prohibitions in a legally binding charter. However, owing to recent developments in the area of reproductive cloning and so forth, we now know the importance of establishing them in law.
Article 4 prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. For those of us who have observed with concern some of the practices accepted in Guantanamo Bay, it is reassuring to note the European Union is firmly and clearly committing itself to such a prohibition. The prohibition on trafficking of human beings is also important given that human trafficking has became an unfortunate part of the globalised world to which we belong.
Article 8 setting out the right to have one's personal data protected is also very important. The House regularly debates the abuses and infringements of the right to privacy in relation to personal data. This is a strong article which reassures individual citizens that they have a fundamental right to have their personal data protected, access data being collected and have such data corrected in the event that it is inaccurate.
The Green Party welcomes the rights to education and asylum enshrined in the charter. It is reassuring to note that no citizen or legal resident of the European Union may be removed, expelled or extradited to a state where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. That is a standard to which this State must sometimes be pushed to observe. The charter also enshrines the rights of the child and the elderly and refers to the key issue of equality between men and women.
My sole reservation about the Charter of Fundamental Rights relates to the reference in the chapter setting out general provisions which, in referring to the scope of guaranteed rights states that limitations may be made "only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others". Certain European Court of Justice rulings, specifically in the Laval, Rüffert and Viking cases, have been raised repeatedly in the debate on the Lisbon treaty. It appears from these judgments that the court might be interpreting the interests of business, such as the rights of establishment and to provide services in other parts of the EU, as objectives of general interest recognised by the Union. Given the tendency of courts to reflect the political consensus of the day, member state governments must make clear that where a conflict arises between the fundamental human rights of citizens and the rights of businesses, the latter must not be seen to win out. Otherwise, citizens will lose confidence in the European Union, view it as aneoliberal project and withhold support from it in future.
I welcome this debate on a section of the reform treaty which has not yet been discussed in great depth. Most of the European treaties on which we have held referendums have focused on economic issues. Greater emphasis should be placed on the importance of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the most important part of the Lisbon treaty. Although the text is primarily focused on economic issues, people have grown accustomed to economic matters and are sufficiently mature to deal with them. They are not convinced by the wild arguments being made by the "No" side when they set out economic reasons for voting against the treaty. They have moved far beyond these arguments.
In the coming days, we must highlight that the Charter of Fundamental Rights affords a range of rights to every Irish and European citizen. This is the best argument in favour of the reform treaty and I am surprised the media have not focused on it. The charter is the most radical change in the treaty.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights does not aspire to afford all European Union citizens a set of rights but will, if we pass the treaty, become a legal document providing new rights to citizens. The importance of the role of Europe in protecting citizens' rights was highlighted to me by the case of a lady who, on failing to secure timely access to health care in the United Kingdom, took the national health service, the largest employer to the world, to the European Court of Justice. She took on the British Government and NHS and succeeded in having her rights enumerated by the court.
When so-called left-wing groups claiming to campaign on social grounds oppose the Lisbon reform treaty, which will give legal effect to aspirations to secure rights, it calls into question their ideology and reasons for opposing the charter. If they read the judgments of the European Court of Justice over the past 30 years, they would see how difficult it is for citizens to secure their rights at national level. One must exhaust national court systems before one can take a case to the European Court of Justice. The charter will make it much easier to have one's rights protected.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out rights in areas such as employment, health care, education and citizenship. I believe it will be developed in the years ahead and become extremely important to those on the margins of society who believe they cannot take on the system. If the ECJ has demonstrated anything in recent years, it is that it allows individual citizens to take on large corporations and state organisations. Any left-wing group which claims to have a social conscience is a disgrace if it opposes this part of the Lisbon treaty. The same cannot be said of groups with a more fundamentalist right-wing approach. Organisations such as Libertas cannot make up their minds on economic matters and produce crazy arguments to attack what they consider to be an excessive number of rights for ordinary people.
The treaty appeals to the majority of people, the great bulk in the middle who do not belong to the far left or right. It appeals to those who want everyone, whether here or in the rest of Europe, to be given a fair chance. This is the essence of the treaty and the issue on which the debate should focus. As I stated in the House last week, we should focus on the Charter of Fundamental Rights because people will become confused about many aspects of the treaty, including economic provisions. The most important point is that the charter is not aspirational. This is not a case of saying it would be nice and woolly if we had something like this. This will be the law, the foundation of people's rights in the EU for the next 40 years.
There are groups that would rather see us throw this away. If anyone ever felt they had a grievance with this State in the next 30 years, he or she would have to go through the tortuous and expensive process of getting justice through the European Court of Justice. That could be denied to them because some group feels the charter should not be made law. We should all talk about this and Ministers, from the Taoiseach down, should emphasise the importance of this. It will not bind people.
It is in the interests of certain groups such as Libertas to pander to a right-wing, fundamentalist view-point to scare people into thinking we are giving too many rights to people. This is how some people think but the charter does nothing of the sort. It makes it easy to prevent people being exploited and to ensure people have access to services that all of us take for granted. Those who are lucky enough to have an education, experience and contacts can get these things already. That is what is important about this. I ask the Minister of State and other Ministers to put the focus on the Charter of Fundamental Rights and make it an emphasis for the next few days.
The economic arguments have been won and it is time to move onto the social side of what the EU is about.
Ní bheidh orm mo chuid ama uilig a ghlacadh. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Rialtas, a chur na ráitis seo ar an gclár inniu. Is deas an rud é deis a bheith agam mo chuid tuaraimí a nochtú sa Seanad ar an gcairt seo, atá mar pháirt de chonradh Liospóin.
I am glad to address the Charter of Fundamental Rights that is attached to the Lisbon treaty. I have been listening to the debate in my office and in the Chamber and that type of name-calling makes me angry. Perhaps it is not done intentionally. Talking about people being crazy is the wrong way to behave in the Upper House of the Irish Parliament. People have a right to argue their viewpoint, whatever view they come from, that the Lisbon treaty is a bad deal and that we should send our negotiators back to get a better deal for Ireland and Europe. They have the right to do this and those who are calling them names outside the House and in the media should realise that their own party supporters, who have traditionally voted for that party, are some of those who share the view of Sinn Féin on the "No" side. It is wrong. If we want to engage in a proper debate on the Lisbon treaty, let us talk about the facts. I have listened to some of the nice things about the Charter of Fundamental Rights but some of the facts have not come through and it is to this subject that I want to address my comments.
Sinn Féin strongly supports any measures that enhance the protection and promotion of human rights and equality at home, in the EU and in the wider world. However, the idea that the Charter of Fundamental Rights is somehow a major step forward in human rights is an illusion. Even its advocates acknowledge that it is little more than a restatement of existing human rights law. In its analysis of the charter the Institute for European Affairs argues that it "does not create any new rights" and that the social and economic rights in the charter "do not give rise to direct claims for positive action".
What is missing from the previous speaker's contribution is that the charter is already part of the jurisprudence of the European Union and is regularly cited by the European Court of Justice in making its determinations on cases where the charter has relevance. Including the charter in the Lisbon treaty will not add to this fact in any way or give additional rights. The cases to which the Senator refers, of people approaching the European Court of Justice, are already part of the jurisprudence of the EU.
Some advocates of the treaty, such as Senator de Burca, have gone as far as suggesting that the inclusion of the charter in the treaty will prevent future ECJ decisions such as the controversial Laval judgement. Nothing could be further from the truth. In making its determination in the Laval case, the ECJ explicitly recognised the right to collective bargaining in the charter. However this did not prevent the ECJ from deciding that it was legal for the Latvian company to undercut the agreed wages to the Swedish workers in question. Again, contrary to claims by advocates of the Lisbon treaty, there are no rights contained in the text that are not already provided for by either the Irish Constitution or the European Convention of Human Rights.
Most importantly, the application of the charter is subject to national laws and customs and the objectives and values of the European Union. This point is important as it means that access to the rights contained in the charter is reliant on the existence of relevant member state legislation. The decision by SIPTU to withhold support for the Lisbon treaty until the Government commits to providing new domestic legislation securing and strengthening the right to collective bargaining is a clear demonstration that the charter does not provide any new protection in the field of workers rights, specifically with regard to the right of collective bargaining. Contrary to the claims made by some trade unionists and politicians, SIPTU, UNITE and the TEEU are clear in their understanding of the limitations of the charter and are demanding greater domestic protection, without which the charter would be worthless.
Sinn Féin has a strong record in advocating and supporting human rights, at home and in the European Parliament. Sinn Féin is not opposed to the Charter of Fundamental Rights but would have preferred a much stronger and clearer instrument. However the suggestion that the charter represents some great advance in rights protections at an EU level is false. It is more likely that the inclusion of the charter in the Lisbon treaty is a cynical exercise aimed at assisting some politicians and trade unionists sell what is in all other respects a bad deal for Ireland.
The Lisbon treaty can and must be renegotiated in order to get a better deal. The first step is to vote "No" on 12 June and give the Government the strongest possible mandate to enter any new negotiations.
I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his personal drive and enthusiasm in presenting the case for the Lisbon treaty, the charter we are debating and the broader European political project. The Minister of State has been in the House on many previous occasions and even his greatest opponents must concede that he has total commitment to the work of the EU and total belief that Ireland's interest is best served by being at the heart of Europe, playing a full and rightful role and not shouting from the sidelines.
I agree with the initial comments of Senator Doherty, that this debate should not involve name-calling or demonising. It should be a rational debate on the question before us, the Lisbon treaty, and the part of it we are debating here, the Charter of Fundamental Rights. There has been much talk about the fact that the question posed to the Irish people is a complicated one. It is not complicated or complex, it is technical and I have every confidence in the ability of the Irish electorate to understand, to digest and to make a decision. I hope the Irish people will vote for Ireland's continuing advancement and involvement in the EU by voting "Yes" on Thursday week.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a significantly important document. The previous speaker outlined that it does not change anything in one sense because the rights are already in place and the courts already refer to it. I do not disagree with that analysis but the Irish people, along with the parliaments of the other 26 countries, are taking a positive step by incorporating this charter into law as part of the Lisbon treaty with a "Yes" vote.
My first trip as a Member of the Oireachtas was in 1988 when I and a group of my colleagues from Fine Gael attended a meeting in the former West Germany. Part of our trip involved a visit to former East Berlin and former West Berlin. To see a city, a country and a Continent divided by a physical wall was a frightening recognition of the failure of politics and the despair and destruction caused by a Continent working apart rather than together. We must all concede that the European political project over the past 20 years has been phenomenally successful in uniting a city, a country and a Continent, and long may that continue.
If the European Union is responsible for nothing other than bringing together the people of Germany and Europe, east and west, it would be a magnificent achievement. That must be one of our political starting points but we must go further, work even harder together and co-operate together. The Lisbon treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights play a significant role in that regard.
The language of the charter is enthusiastic and wonderful. It refers to sharing a peaceful future based on common values and to the spiritual and moral heritage on which the Union was founded. It speaks of universal values, human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity. It also speaks about strengthening the protection of fundamental rights in light of changes in society, social progress and scientific and technological developments. All of that paints a very positive picture of what the charter and the Lisbon treaty are about and about what the people must decide on Thursday week.
A significant amount of misinformation has been circulated, some of which was deliberate. It is important we keep addressing the facts and not the fantasy. When Article 1 refers to human dignity and Article 2 to the right to life, it is disappointing that some anti-Lisbon groups have so brazenly, unfairly and provocatively presented the treaty in such a negative and erroneous fashion. Surely there is nothing more important than human dignity and the right to life. A considerable number of decent people have been concerned about the issue of abortion but we can be assured that the pro-life position of the vast majority of the people is protected under the charter and treaty. The Lisbon treaty fully accepts the entitlement of the people to retain our pro-life amendments, and long may that continue.
I refer briefly to some of the articles of the charter, including the right to the integrity of the person, the right to marry and found a family, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, respect for private and family life and the right to liberty and security. They are all fundamental and are protected and expanded under this charter. I cannot understand how anybody could oppose such developments.
I take great satisfaction from the references in the charter to the rights of the elderly. We debated the elderly earlier in the context of other legislation. I hope the specific reference to the rights of the elderly in the charter will give the elderly in Ireland and throughout the European Union a stronger role in the political life of the Union, greater rights and that our legislation on healthcare, nursing home care, etc., will be seen to respond to this right which is part of the charter.
We do not have sufficient time to debate the charter in detail but it is a splendid expression of all that is best about Europe, that is, the Continent which has come together after two World Wars and the spilling of the blood of tens of millions of people and which has decided that co-operation and not confrontation is the way forward. That is summed up in this charter and in the Lisbon treaty.
It is so important the people to say "Yes" on Thursday week and that Ireland continues not only to play a role but to lead the political process, thinking and co-operation in Europe. Of all that has happened since we gained our freedom, we can be proud of our involvement in the European Union. Like Robert Emmet's epitaph, we talk about Ireland taking its place among the nations of the earth but we have only truly done so since we joined the European Union, and long may that continue.
Dick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all Senators who contributed. There is possibly only one thing on which I agree with Senator Doherty and that is that in a democratic society everybody has the right to express his or her opinion. That is one of the fundamental rights we all enjoy as part of our democracy, and I agree very firmly with him on that. I also agree that whether people are Fianna Fáilers, Fine Gaelers, Troskyites or otherwise, they all have the right to express their view. What no citizen in a democracy has the right to do is to invent stories or truths. Truths are truths and facts are facts, and facts speak for themselves.
The reality is that this charter is a very important addition to European law. I say that because I had the honour of being the first and possibly the only Irish person to date to hold a human rights fellowship in the United Nations. It is very important on the international stage that we show what the Union stands for. The great benefit of the charter and of incorporating it in, and attaching it to, the treaty is that it makes more transparent than ever before those values, freedoms and realities which we, as democrats, whether we agree or disagree on Lisbon, hold true.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights is one of the central features of the Union. Unlike Senator Doherty, I find myself in complete agreement with the general secretary of IMPACT who described the charter as a prize which had been sought for many years. Unlike Senator Doherty, I sat through the long discussions in the Convention on the Future of Europe. Although I was not a member, I sat through the sessions on social Europe because I believe giving a social dimension to Europe is critically important. I am painfully aware that not everybody in the European Union and not everybody in the political groupings of Europe share the views the Senator and I have on the requirement of a social dimension to Europe. It would be very unwise to take for granted that an automatic improvement would be gained from renegotiation. We sought to reach a position of equality between the smaller and larger states in the negotiations and we cannot ask for any more in a democracy.
I am delighted the charter enjoys near full cross-party support. I especially acknowledge the very strong role the Labour Party has played in this. I mention, in particular, Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, who I got to know and respect even more than I did previously during the course of the convention. He was one of the people who very strongly articulated the cause of the charter. The charter is described as a prize by the general secretary of IMPACT while the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation said he wanted the Lisbon treaty adopted quickly by member states with the introduction of the charter of fundamental rights becoming legally binding. I do not want to continuously harp back to Senator Doherty, but the reality is that John Monks knows more than most of us in this House about European labour law.
I agree with Senator Bradford that Fine Gael has put a specific focus in its documentation on the need to seek the support of the Irish people for this charter. It is No. 7 on Fine Gael's list of reasons to vote "Yes". Senators Bradford and Twomey are right to suggest that this issue has not been the subject of sufficient discussion on the positive side of the treaty debate. At the launch of its campaign, the Progressive Democrats acknowledged the positive role and importance of the charter and recognised that Des O'Malley was one of those who drafted it. Senator de Búrca rightly made the point that the charter is a glittering political prize for people of her political viewpoint. I explained in my opening statement that the strengthened status of the charter is a positive aspect of the Lisbon treaty. It has been argued that the charter does not introduce a raft of new changes. One should focus on the reiteration of rights, as well as responsibilities in respect of children, we already enjoy. We have been misled in this debate by those who deny that being more imaginative would not be as easy as it seems.
I wish to emphasise what Article 24.2 of the charter says about the rights of the child. A Senator spoke about the importance of children. One of the most extraordinary and mendacious arguments that has been made against the charter is the suggestion that the European Union and the democratic parties which represent the wider spectrum of people in Europe are somehow trying to do something in the charter to injure the child. This argument has not been made by Senator Doherty's party, I hasten to add, but by an extraordinary organisation that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. This suggestion is somehow insulting to democracy. Article 24.2 of the charter states that "in all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child's best interests must be a primary consideration". It is perverse to argue that the article in question somehow gives one the right to incarcerate a child. I do not aim these comments at Senator Doherty's party. He has not made the argument in question, which is being promoted in the interests of misleading the Irish people.
It injures and aggrieves me that there have been so many misrepresentations of the charter. I refer, for example, to the suggestion that abortion will somehow be introduced into this country on foot of the Lisbon treaty. It is to the great credit of Senator Doherty's colleague, Mary Lou McDonald, MEP, that she has consistently said throughout the campaign that the treaty has nothing to do with abortion. One or two Sinn Féin canvassers on the ground have mistakenly been dragged into this aspect of the debate. I would like to give credit where credit is due. When we talk about the charter, as when we talk about the treaty, we have a responsibility as democrats to focus on the facts rather than the imaginings of those who wish to demonise the work of the EU. One must admit, regardless of whether one agrees with the Lisbon treaty or the charter, that they result from the hard work of many people who are democrats. The treaty and the charter both come from conventions which were drawn up by elected representatives from the left, the right and the centre across Europe. The treaty, like the charter, deserves support.
My personal belief is that the charter is one of the prizes that will come our way if we vote "Yes". Senator Bradford made that point. There are other prizes too. We will get a more effective, efficient and democratic Union if we vote "Yes". We will have achieved all of that while at the same time protecting our own interests, such as our neutrality, our taxation policy and our positive position in respect of abortion. As someone who is strongly pro-life, I believe Ireland has a positive position on the right to life of the unborn child. I respect those who may take a different view. The reality is that the protection of our position is one of the prizes we will get, as a people, if we vote "Yes" to ratify the Lisbon treaty on Thursday, 12 June next. I thank the Members of the House for their interesting contributions.