Despite the predictable media hype, and bogus claims of doing down the Brits, nothing has changed in terms of the Lisbon Treaty, writes Aengus O Snodaigh, Sinn Féin Dail spokesman on European affairs.
Nothing of substance happened at last week’s Council of Ministers discussions in Brussels on the Lisbon Treaty.
Yes, we have an “international agreement” on neutrality, taxation and ethical issues to be lodged at the United Nations. Yes, we have the “promise” of a protocol on these same issues to be attached to a future accession treaty, for a country and on a date yet to be decided. And yes, we have a “solemn declaration” on workers’ rights.
But have we any changes to the text of the Lisbon Treaty itself? Will any aspect of the treaty’s implementation in Ireland or across the EU be altered? Have the substantial concerns of the electorate on issues such as Ireland’s loss of influence, militarisation and neutrality, workers’ rights and public services, international trade deals, nuclear power and the developing world been addressed?
The straight answer to all of these questions is “No”.
Brush aside all the meaningless rhetoric about legally binding guarantees - the decision of the heads of state, agreed last Friday, is nothing more than a series of clarifications of some aspects of the Lisbon Treaty.
It does not alter the text of the treaty in any way. Nor does it change the impact that the treaty will have on Ireland.
So when we come to vote on the Lisbon Treaty in October we will be voting on exactly the same treaty, with exactly the same consequences for Ireland and the EU, as we did on June 12th, 2008.
But surely this cannot be. Has the Government not secured legally binding guarantees that will be enshrined in international and eventually EU law? Will these guarantees not safeguard Irish neutrality and tax sovereignty? Does the solemn declaration not signal the EU’s intent on protecting workers’ rights?
Again, the answer to these questions is No. Like the emperor parading naked in public, the Lisbon Treaty has no new clothes, yet the courtiers and ministers marvel aloud at its non-existent new apparel.
Let’s take each in turn.
On neutrality, the decision of heads of state agreed last Friday in Brussels says: “The Lisbon Treaty does not affect or prejudice Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality.” This tells us Irish troops can only be sent abroad with consent of the Irish Government in the Council of Ministers and the Oireachtas.
Sinn Féin never disputed this fact. The Lisbon Treaty is very clear in this regard. But neutrality is not only what you do with your troops; it is also about alliances you form, what you do with your resources, and what other member states do in your name.
The Lisbon Treaty makes clear its intent when it states that there shall be a common defence.
In expanding the scope of permissible military missions, it demonstrates its desire to move beyond peacekeeping and civil reconstruction. In reasserting the compatibility of EU foreign and defence policies with those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), it reminds that the emerging EU common defence is clearly aligned. Provisions for permanent structured co-operation create the real possibility that wars we do not support will be fought in our name and with our resources. The mutual defence clause creates obligations incompatible with any internationally recognised definition of neutrality.
Anyone in any doubt about the implications of the Lisbon Treaty for Irish neutrality should read the exchange of views in the opinion section of The Irish Times sparked by writings of Dublin City University academic Karen Devine, from November 25th to December 24th, 2008.
On taxation, again, the council decision tells us nothing new. Under the Lisbon Treaty, any move to a common corporation tax system across the EU would require a unanimous vote at the Council of Ministers. Anyone who read the treaty could tell you this.
Sinn Féin’s concern on taxation rests with Article 48 of the treaty. This article allows the Council of Ministers, by unanimous decision, to alter the text of existing EU treaties. Today, if the EU wanted to agree a common corporation tax system, they would have to do so as part of broader treaty revision. This would require both unanimity at council and ratification in each member state, and a referendum in the Republic.
However, Article 48 allows the Council of Ministers to make changes to the treaties with unanimity, but without recourse to what some see as a cumbersome - read democratic - process of negotiation and ratification. So Lisbon does not affect our tax sovereignty, but it makes it easier for the Council of Ministers to make the change in future, and without the inconvenience of a referendum.
Fine Gael and Labour are on record as backing some form of corporate tax harmonisation. Fianna Fail, despite assurances, cannot be trusted on this or indeed any matter of importance.
Finally, with respect to workers’ rights and public services, the very fact that this issue is being treated differently, in the form of a non-legally binding declaration, demonstrates that despite fine and solemn words, there is neither the political will nor the intention to alter the current direction of EU policy and European Court of Justice decisions in this regard.
To put it another way, the Solemn Declaration on Workers’ Rights is more like an election promise by a Fianna Fail or Fine Gael politician the week before polling day, laced with false sincerity and destined to be forgotten the moment the ballot boxes were closed.
There are also a large number of issues which the EU leaders studiously chose to ignore last Friday. No mention of the reduced influence of smaller member states as a consequence of the new voting arrangements at council. No mention of the 60 or so member state vetoes that will end. No mention of the controversial changes to international trade talks opposed by farmers and trade justice groups alike. No mention of the opening up of vital public services such as health and education to the vagaries of the market.
But we secured a permanent Irish commissioner, the Government will insist. Again, not true. The agreement here by the Council of Ministers is more like a stay of execution, promising a commissioner for an unspecified time. Unless this issue is written into an EU treaty, the likely outcome is that the reduction in size of the commission envisioned in Lisbon will be delayed by five years until the next European parliamentary elections in 2014.
When the electorate rejected the Lisbon Treaty by 53 per cent in 2008, they gave Brian Cowen and his Government a strong mandate to secure a better deal for Ireland and the EU. But just like his mismanagement of the economy, Cowen dithered and did nothing, leaving us with another fine mess to get out of.
When the emperor’s tailors promised a new suit of clothes, they assured him that they would only be seen by the great and the gifted. While the emperor and his admirers colluded in the fraud, the plain people of his empire had the wit to see the sham for what it was. Sound familiar?