01 October 2009

Lisbon: Five Minutes to Midnight

I know, I've not been online here in ages. Still, I wrote a post for my Facebook page just there, and thought I may as well post it here too. Important times, after all. I was meant to be going home tomorrow, but then, I was meant to have submitted my thesis yesterday. Events of the last few months, and the last month in particularly, have thrown everything out of whack, and I didn't managed to make my Wednesday deadline. I'm currently typing like mad and hoping for a short extension.

Anyway, this means I'll not be home tomorrow. I'll be home soon enough, but not tomorrow, so I'm afraid I'll have to postpone any plans I'd made to see people, and I'll not be giving blood, getting my hair cut, or voting on Lisbon. Apologies to people I'd planned to meet, all of whom I've tagged here.

Given that I'll not be voting on Lisbon, and I'm surrendering all the time I'd have spent going home to getting my thesis finished, I think it'd not be too indulgent of me to say why I wish I could vote for Lisbon, and why I think everyone who can should do so.

Putting it simply, although the Lisbon Treaty looks like a chaotic mess, its end result, once it comes to pass, will be two tidy treaties, making the structure, capabilities, aims, and direction of the EU much clearer to everyone. As reformed by Lisbon, the EU will be both more efficient and much more accountable.

The most important reforms, as far as I can see, and the reasons for approving of them, are as follows:
1. Stabilising the rotating position that is the President of the European Council from a six-month part-time appointment, as it currently is, to a thirty-month full-time appointment has to be a good thing as it will collectively give all members of the Union a recognisable and coherent voice on global issues. Likewise the merging of the two key external affairs commissioners into one, and the merging of the three European bodies into one legal entity. By making things simpler, we'll make our voice clearer, louder, and more effective on things we all agree on.

2. Making the Council, the main decision-making body, vote in public will make the whole EU decision-making structure far more accountable, and will make it harder for national governments and the media to blame 'faceless bureaucrats' for European decisions.

3. Requiring the Commission to send all proposals to the national parliaments for their scrutiny eight weeks before they go to the Council surely has to be a good thing, not least because it'll provide an effective safeguard to prevent the Union from going beyond its remit.

4. The Council's new double majority voting system is an elegant balancing act that recognises the democratic weight of big countries like Britain, France, and Germany, while also taking full account of the importance - as sovereign nation states - of small ones like Ireland, Austria, and Malta. In fact, you could argue that far from Ireland having lost influence in this arrangement, we've gained it, but that ignores the fact that these voting arrangements are apparently hardly ever needed, with most EU decisions being made by consensus whether they need to be or not.

5. If countries still aren't happy, after all of this, Lisbon provides countries with a mechanism to secede from the Union, something that currently doesn't exist.
It does plenty more, of course, including guaranteeing various individual rights through the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and allowing citizens to petition the Commission if they can assemble petitions with a million signatories - that's 0.2% of the Union population, so not that many people, really.

It's important to stress how much of this is just tidying up things, and how much of it is still based on unanimity. Pretty much everything to do with external relations requires unanimity, and the entirety of the defence arrangements require unanimity. This means that the EU's five neutral country can't be forced to do anything militarily - yes, not even buying new equipment - unless they agree to. And even if you don't trust the government, in which case your beef is with your politicians, not your neighbours, such agreements can't be backroom deals, given that they'll be scrutinised by the national parliaments first, and voted on publicly by the Council.

Of course, there are loads of claims being wheeled out about why Irish people shouldn't vote for Lisbon, these claims coming from, broadly speaking, six groups, none of which make a convincing case, if you pay close attention, and actually check what they say against the two treaties themselves:
1. Libertas, who've generally been pretty quiet this time out. Their main claims last time relied on claims about Brussels imposing centralised taxes and about Ireland losing its commissioner every so often. The first claim was nonsense, and the second was established by Nice anyway. Since Lisbon I, our European partners have guaranteed that central taxation won't happen unless everybody wants it, in which case, well, everyone would want it, and have added a guarantee that every state will always retain the right to a commissioner.

2. The Green Rump, led by Patricia McKenna, who is making exactly the same arguments she made against Maastricht, Amsterdam, and Nice, and seems oblivious to the fact that pretty much every bit of Irish environmental legislation originated in Europe. Why she seems to think that America, China, Russia, India, and the OPEC countries would be more willing to listen to a dirge of European voices rather than one loud and clear one in the coming debates about global climate change isn't really clear.

3. Sinn Fein, who argued last time that we could get a better deal in Europe, and that we shouldn't be losing a commissioner, and who have since been in a huff because the government went back to Brussels, haggled successfully for us to keep our commissioner, and then said it would ask us again whether we were still unhappy with Lisbon. Effectively they were asked if they'd like tea, said no because they didn't like tea without sugar, were then offered tea with sugar, and snarled sure didn't they say they didn't want tea! There's no pleasing some people, especially when those people have always been in the steady minority of the eligible electorate that opposed EEC accession, the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the Amsterdam Treaty, and the Nice Treaty. Aside from not having noticed a democratic trend against them both in referendums and in normal elections, they don't seem to have gotten the memo that European integration has allowed Ireland to stand on its own two feet and break free of economic dependence on Britain, which is probably one of the reasons why it's opposed by...

4. UKIP and their cronies from over the Irish Sea. Seriously, you need to read their leaflet to appreciate the scale of their lies. Is there anything in it that isn't a distortion? They present all manner of things out of context and as though they're either new developments, rather than decades-old ones, or else as though they don't still require unanimous consent from member states. And of course, no mention of open voting or equally-weighted national voting in the Council, parliamentary scrutiny at a national level, citizens' initiatives, or the secession mechanism. Liars, and liars with no interest in Ireland other than as a wedge to crack the whole EU open.

5. The Socialist Worker crowd are perhaps as odd allies for UKIP as Sinn Fein are. These tend to be the Lisbon opponents I like most, especially on a personal level, but they're deeply wrong on this, and I've yet to see any evidence for the claims that Lisbon is bad for workers. The fact that trade unions - even the stroppier ones - are in favour of Lisbon should be a clue on that front, really.

6. And finally there's Coir. Oh dear. Look, I'm Catholic, and I'm pro-life, and that shower of sanctimonious liars do not speak for me. They don't seem to have gotten the memo that God doesn't need our lies, and that the ends do not justify the means. The fact that the hierarchy and Des Hanafin, that old warhorse of the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, have said that they're talking rot and that Lisbon is no threat to Ireland's complete independence on the abortion issue are, I think powerful arguments against this crowd. I still like the spoof Coir posters, though.
Seriously, I know a stopped clock can be right not just once but twice a day, but does anyone seriously think that all of these stopped clocks are simultaneously right? Generally speaking here, the best thing to do whenever you hear one of these people make a claim about the treaties is to find out what passage they're talking about, and look it up. There's a fair chance that a reference to unanimity will be in there somewhere, or else that the supposed change is something that's already been the case for decades.

You can prove anything with facts, after all. I just wish Michael O'Leary hadn't weighed in. Sigh...

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