Reform in Ireland Can Start with a Yes to Lisbon…

Last year Naoise Nunn was one of a small but hard working Libertas team which basically took on and bested the Yes campaign over the first Lisbon Treaty Referendum. This year he is voting yes. The common motivation between this year and last is that he wants to see substantial political reform, both in Ireland and Europe. He explains below the fold:By Naoise Nunn

I campaigned against the Lisbon Treaty last time on the basis that a better deal was possible for Ireland. This time I am urging a Yes vote to lock in the better deal we got from our No vote. It’s basic, simple common sense. I am also calling for people to vote Yes to Lisbon because the Treaty represents some of reform we could badly do with at home.

The buses, taxis, offices, factories, hairdressers, waiting rooms and kitchens of Ireland are seething with anger about the state of the nation. Unemployment is rampant, net emigration has returned and women and men everywhere are finding it tougher and tougher to provide for themselves and their children. People feel a powerful and urgent need to give something or someone the lash and the Government, the builders and the bankers are natural and justifiable targets. What is not a natural or justifiable target for this anger is the Lisbon Treaty upon which we give our verdict on October 2nd.

We now require radical reform at every level of society to deal with our current crisis. We must either shake up or scrap those systems which have run this country up to now but are no longer fit for purpose. Legislation is too slow and lacks adequate consultation with those affected. Decisions made at national level have impacts at local level. Government and State bodies cost too much and lack transparency and accountability – we need only look at the disgraceful conduct of FÁS which has emerged. More importantly, we can’t seem to reach a consensus on what strategy will get us out of this mess.

It probably won’t at all surprise you to read that these problems have all in some way been faced by the European Union too. The difference to us though is that the European Union has found some sort of consensus on how to reform the way it does its business. It’s called the Lisbon Treaty and it aims to make Europe’s institutions more responsive to ordinary people, transparent and democratic. Lisbon also spells out strategies to address the challenges of energy security, climate change and globalisation which cannot be dealt with by countries acting alone.

Let’s be clear about this: Lisbon is no conspiracy being foisted upon the people. It was negotiated over seven years by the democratically-elected governments (and oppositions) of every single one of the 27 member states. It’s not perfect by any means but it is now the best deal possible for Ireland. It provides a platform for reform of the EU present and future. Furthermore, the economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves make the approval of the Lisbon Treaty the sensible choice for our future. It just makes plain common sense to give ourselves in Ireland – and in Europe – a platform for further much-needed reform.

The EU still has many failings in terms of communicating with the citizens of the member states. It must involve us more in the decision-making process. It must do better to give us a sense of ownership of the European partnership. My central point is that these and other problems can be much better addressed by a European Union reformed by Lisbon. The alternative is to struggle under the current state of uncertainty. At the same time, many of the criticisms made by eurosceptics are actually the failings of member states, some are exaggerated and others, to be frank, are just plain nuts.

The Lisbon Treaty is a complicated document but it must be so to reform the rules of such a unique and complex entity. The EU enables 27 countries to voluntarily co-operate in areas of mutual. Crucially, however it retains for each of those diverse countries the fundamental sovereign power to decide their own policy on issues of vital national interest.

There are many specific measures provisions in the Treaty which can give us in Ireland some inspiration for some of the reforms which would benefit this country. Specifically, it gives more say to the directly-elected European Parliament in making laws together with the European Council, made up of the relevant ministers from all the member state governments.

For the first time, the Treaty makes public and transparent the meetings of the European Council so that citizens can see how their own government ministers perform and arrive at their decisions. This means we can hold them responsible when they arrive back from Brussels.

The Treaty also introduces much greater powers for the Dáil so that TDs and Senators can judge on our behalf whether or not new EU laws are suitable for us. The new arrangements also give the EU new power to deal more effectively with the very real and present challenges of energy security, climate change and globalisation which simply cannot be tackled by countries acting alone.

There are also a number of aspects of the Lisbon Treaty which have been completely misrepresented and misunderstood. The European Commission does not make or pass any laws. It is effectively the civil service of the EU and can only propose laws which must then be amended, agreed or rejected by the ministers of the member state governments. Lisbon also gives the European Parliament more power to decide on laws in many areas.

The proposed President of the European Council will act as a chairperson and will co-ordinate summit meetings. That’s it. The post does not carry any executive power or legislative power and as such cannot be described as a “President of Europe” in the common understanding of that term.

The European Court of Justice has been used as a convenient bogeyman. No campaigners have claimed that its 27 judges (one of whom is nominated by Ireland) might interpret the Treaties to come to a wide range of imagined and highly improbable decisions such as allowing for the involuntary euthanasia of the elderly or the micro-chipping of children. The fact is that the ECJ can only make rulings on issues over which the EU has been given power voluntarily by member states.

In the area of ethical and family issues, for example, the Nold case found that the Court: “cannot uphold measures which are incompatible with fundamental rights recognised and protected by the Constitutions of those States”. This principle is reinforced by the Lisbon Treaty with protocols. It essentially means the Irish Constitution is untouchable. The European Court cannot interpret the Charter of Fundamental Rights in any way that would change this. Most importantly, the overwhelming experience of the ECJ is that it acts in a fair manner to balance the rights and responsibilities of member states and the EU institutions, principally for the benefit of citizens.

Like the EU, the Lisbon Treaty is not a conspiracy. It is a sovereign agreement by 27 very different member states to co-operate. They do so – we do so – in the firm belief that we must hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.

We must let our common sense and positive experience of Europe for the past 35 years inform our decision on Lisbon rather than the fearful, paranoid notions of what might happen in the future.

This time we have nothing positive to gain by voting No but by voting Yes we can lock in the concessions we won in that first No vote.

By ratifying Lisbon, we will also provide the framework and platform for further reform of those elements of the European Union of which many are critical.

We can confidently vote Yes for reform in Europe as the beginning of a process that can and should lead to real reform at home. In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, preparing the American people for recovery from the depths of the Great Depression: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

Naoise Nunn is an independent political consultant and producer of the monthly Leviathan: Political Cabaret series and the Mind Field spoken word arena at the Electric Picnic festival. He was executive director of Libertas until September 2008.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty