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The Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the EU reports… you can guess the conclusion. November 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Union, Irish Politics.
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Just flicking through the Report by the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on the Ireland’s Future in the EU it is much as one might expect.

A few small thoughts. Firstly there are no dissenting opinions presented despite at least two of the members, Pearse Doherty of SF and Rónán Mullen (Independent Senator), campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty. Perhaps that will come later. That said Chairman Paschal Donohoe of FG, is clear in the Introduction that:

It is not within the Sub-Committee’s Orders of Reference to recommend a solution to the current situation which has developed since the Lisbon Treaty referendum result. The different roles of the Oireachtas and the Government are clear with regard to this.

Which is probably wise of him. I can’t claim to have read all 81 pages, but the Executive Summary is reasonably short and some of the more intriguing sections are worth a look. I’m all but certain that some will take issue with the assertions under “After Lisbon: The Challenges” that:

Ireland’s standing and influence in the European Union have diminished following the people’s decision not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. In immediate terms, this inhibits Ireland’s ability to promote and defend its national interests at a European level. This is likely to affect Ireland’s ability to influence key upcoming policy discussions within the Union. These include, but are not limited to, the development of the EU’s climate change package; the negotiations on the future shape of the EU budget beyond 2013 including provision of adequate resources for the Common Agricultural Policy; and responses to the global financial crisis.

While also noting that:

It is legally possible for the Union to stand still and operate into the future on the basis of current treaties and institutional arrangements. However, given the overwhelming desire among Member States for reform of the Union’s structures in a manner such as that envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty, this is considered unlikely. It is more likely that a mechanism will be developed by other Member States which allows them to proceed with a process of further integration which excludes Ireland. This would lead to a two-tier Europe with Ireland on the political and economic periphery. Such a scenario would have a devastating effect on Ireland’s political influence, economic prospects and international standing.

And that:

Ireland’s decision not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty has made the country’s long-term position at the core of the European Union considerably less certain. Representatives of business interests have expressed the view that any dilution of Ireland’s relationship with the EU could seriously damage its competitiveness in attracting foreign direct investment. There is an assumption among the business community that problems surrounding the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by Ireland will ultimately be overcome. This explains the lack of an immediate impact arising from the referendum result in relation to the attraction and maintaining of foreign investment.

Some pointed criticisms are made of the EU…

The EU has failed to grasp that information about the Union is not understood where the ordinary citizen does not understand the context behind the information. Simply explaining how things happen is inadequate if there is no explanation of why things happen also. The right of European citizens to access information about the Union is correctly emphasised. There is no lack of information about the Union available to citizens. In some ways the problem is that there is so much information, but no context to the information. People need to be able to understand the meaning of the information, and its relevance, and that is often difficult at present because so much of the information is written from an insider’s perspective, presuming a background public knowledge that does not exist. Information on its own, if not in a form people can understand, will not facilitate public understanding and engagement with Europe.

Nor did the Sub-Committee ignore some of the outcomes of the Referendum…

The State’s role in ensuring the provision of public services and the means by which these services are delivered should continue to be a matter for each individual Member State. It is important that the protections that currently exist at EU level, and which are enhanced under the Lisbon Treaty, should be adhered to and respected.

And also…

The right of each Member State to decide its own policies in areas of social and ethical sensitivity should continue to be respected. To this end, a policy of subsidiarity should be carefully observed when developing and interpreting EU law. It would be important for EU institutions to work strictly within the competences which have been conferred on them under the EU Treaties.

Although there is a clear neutrality on just how these are to be effected in the political arena.

On the other hand it is heartening that the Sub-Committee hasn’t gone for any of the quick-fix solutions touted in the media, such as:

The Sub-Committee believes that ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by parliament alone is not a desirable option. Such a ratification procedure could be interpreted as an effort to circumvent the democratic will of the people. It is also not clear whether such an option is constitutionally possible. It could present significant, possibly insurmountable, legal difficulties.

But internal tensions may have resulted in the following being proposed…

The Sub-Committee has concerns about any options that may involve Ireland opting out of EU policy areas. In this respect, it would point to the Danish experience and the growing feeling there that its opt outs in the areas of Justice and Home affairs, the European Security and Defence Policy and the Euro has had a detrimental effect on Denmark’s national interests. Opt outs are not cost free. They can potentially mean Ireland losing its right to shape and influence key policy areas. The implications of choosing such a course of action should be thoroughly examined.

Frankly that’s the only serious route forward in order to encompass the demand by the larger No campaign bodies that the Treaty be ‘renegotiated’ – a term that became increasingly difficult to define after the vote, note Declan Ganley’s problems with it last week – and yet also allow for something short of dispensing with the Treaty itself in total.

Yet the report also notes that:

The Sub-Committee believes that a solution must be found that keeps Ireland at the heart of Europe while respecting the democratic will of the Irish people by arranging for these concerns to be accommodated by the other Member States.

Hmmmm…. (I really must stop using that…any suggestions as to a replacement) what solution precisely? None is forthcoming. But if not opt-outs, then what? Because I’ll hazard a guess that no opt-outs then no Lisbon redux.

There is a good discussion on what would happen in the event of the Republic withdrawing from the EU in the aftermath of a No vote.

This option raises the prospect of Ireland leaving the Union and becoming a member of the European Economic Area along with Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.

The political unreality of this is underlined by the following;

It would mean an end to Ireland’s participation in the Common Agricultural Policy and to any right to receive Regional, Social and Structural funds. Continuing participation in the euro would remain to be resolved. Full access to the internal EU market would be maintained but the right to participate in decision-making on directives and regulations would be ended. Ireland would become the taker rather then the maker of internal market and related legislation. Given that changes in EU law could have a negative impact on the economic welfare or social values of European Economic Area states, the significance of this lack of voice should not be under-estimated. In addition, even with no voice at the table, Ireland would still be expected to contribute funding to the EU’s cohesion policies. This could cost the exchequer up to €200 million per annum.

Hardly an optimal position. And the trade bloc component which some hardy souls have argued might be a home for us, the European Free Trade Association, is unlikely to welcome us in with open arms (and EFTA may lose a member if Iceland swings towards EU membership as seems likely in the aftermath of their financial and economic collapse). The public outcry from various groups would more than likely kill that proposal stone dead.

The idea of non-ratification by Ireland is put forward. The ensuing options include either the status quo, renegotiation of the Treaty by member state or, as seems most likely, a renewed effort by other states to move forward without the RoI. This, it is noted includes:

…a number of possible legal mechanisms for doing so, such as denouncing the current Treaties and setting up a new EU without Ireland, but they are quite convoluted. More importantly, a decision of the other Member States to proceed without Ireland would also break with a core principle of the EU – solidarity – which could have unforeseen consequences for the Union.

Or foreseen, very very foreseen indeed. There would be little fear of breach of trust issues being generated between the 26 who decide to move on (they don’t say it, but the idea that somehow this would tear the EU apart seems highly unlikely, not least because all other national governments wish to proceed), but the relationship with Ireland would be, to put it mildly, dismal. And the most likely outcome would be:

…the development of a restructured EU in which some states build institutions for deepened integration while other remain in a ‘second tier’. This possibility has become known as a ‘two-tier’ or ‘two-speed’ Europe. Assuming that Ireland decides not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, it is inevitable that Ireland would find itself in the ‘second tier’ or the ‘slow lane’.

There are democratic aspect to this which are troubling. The current structures in which the Lisbon referendum took place explicitly sought uniformity of opinion. Perhaps that is too great a task. Perhaps a modified approach is necessary which would essentially lead to that two-tier structure – an EU which accepts that some states will not join the ‘fast-lane’ as quickly as others, or may never do so. Or perhaps it is possible but only at the expense of a dislocation between political representatives and those represented. One can argue that that happens all the time on many different issues, but not in such a pointed way, yet that is – at the least – unsatisfactory. In the particular the question in a sense becomes can a reworked offering be presented to the Irish people (and beyond that would such a reworked proposal be sufficiently different to permit it to be put)?

The report argues that beyond protocols and declarations used as addenda to Treaties…

Decisions were first used after the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. They were agreed by the Heads of State and Government of the EU and the Danish Government and were regarded by many as having the same status as an international agreement or ‘mini-treaty’. They did not require the Member States to re-ratify the Maastricht Treaty but secured opt outs for Denmark in the areas of the Euro, Justice and Home Affairs and European Security and Defence Policy. They were later formalised by a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997. In the present context, protocols and legally binding decisions are likely to be alternatives to each other, rather than both being agreed.

We’ve heard the Green Party argue this in the very recent past.

So, after such heady explications of possible futures for this state, what else is in there?

Well, there are the statements of the obvious, such as the traditional calls for a more engaged populace as regards European issues.

It is vital that more be done to encourage citizens to observe and engage with the decision-making processes of the European Union. Further emphasis should be placed on the use by citizens of the European Parliament’s petitions committee. Also, further efforts should be made to ensure that the Council of Ministers meets in public when legislating. It is notable that the need for public access to the Council has been recognised at a European level, and provisions to facilitate this access were included in the Lisbon Treaty.

And…

European treaties should be accompanied by clear explanatory documents, approved by the Member States, setting out in clear and comprehensible terms the intentions of the governments framing the treaty and the effect of each of the treaty provisions. In particular, such a document should be prepared in circumstances where citizens of a Member State are asked to vote on ratification of a treaty in a referendum. This document should be widely distributed during referendum campaigns. The Sub-Committee considers this to be of vital importance.

I remain to be convinced that such an engaged populace will emerge any time soon. Which means that suggestions such as the following are far from a bad idea…

The Houses of the Oireachtas should play a leading role in Ireland’s engagement with the European Union. Strengthening the role of the Oireachtas in EU affairs, and increasing the prominence given to EU matters in the work of the Oireachtas, would enhance the position of European issues within the political system. This would in turn influence the attention paid to such issues by the media and the public. Specific measures to enhance the role of the Oireachtas in this area are considered in chapter four.

This makes sense. The Oireachtas is the representative body of the people in this state and therefore has to take a lead role in such matters, although we still run into the dislocation issue. Still, the ideas proposed are broadly speaking good.

A formal scrutiny reserve mechanism, in line with the model used in the UK Parliament, should be introduced. This will provide more influence for the Oireachtas in the negotiating positions adopted by Irish Ministers on draft EU legislation at Council meetings. The legal, resourcing, and logistical implications need to be examined further.

And this…

Regulatory Impact Assessments have to be prepared for significant EU Directives, regulations and secondary legislation as provided for in the Government’s guidelines. The Sub-Committee is concerned by the low rate of compliance by Departments with the existing guidelines. The Government should ensure that compliance with the Guidelines is addressed. From now on, RIAs should be forwarded to Oireachtas Committees for consideration when significant EU laws are being considered.

Or this…

If Statutory Instruments are being used to give effect to an EU law, the text of the instrument, or at least the heads of the instrument, should be circulated to all Oireachtas members. This would mirror the current practice of distributing all texts of draft primary legislation. This will bring more transparency to the process of giving effect to EU law and enable the members to highlight any potential problems at an early stage.

Indeed the issue of scrutiny is dealt with in some detail. And it is an area of specific concern. The national parliament must remain supreme in the relationships, but if that parliament simply waves through EU originated proposals with little more than a cursory regard there is a legitimate cause for concern. Sure, the more exaggerated claims as to the quantity of EU originated legislation do little to convince, but on specific pieces of that legislation there are obvious implications.

From the pro-EU position I take such oversight is absolutely essential to validate membership and it is telling that it has not been implemented previously. Nor am I averse to the following:

The current requirement in the triple lock for approval by a simple majority in Dáil Éireann should be strengthened. Dáil Éireann should be required to have a “super majority”, where a two thirds majority is needed for any proposal to send Irish troops overseas on peacekeeping missions. This would provide a stronger parliamentary mandate for such decisions and enhance the role of the Oireachtas in a key area of interest to the Irish people.

Will that make a huge difference in the context of a Dáil where all told two thirds already belong to centre right parties? Perhaps not, but it is nonetheless a welcome move in the right direction.

And the political line now being adopted. Read this mornings IT and you will see that:

Senior political sources said the Cabinet subcommittee on Europe [which is different from the Oireachtas Sub-Committee] had reached agreement on the broad thrust of how the Government should deal with the No vote.

This would involve seeking “binding declarations” or possibly joint decisions from other member states on sources of controversy during the last referendum campaign. These included the right to retain a commissioner, defence and neutrality, social/ethical matters such as abortion, and the right to retain our low corporate tax rate.

Erm… sounds a lot like opt-outs. But let’s be serious, they wouldn’t be saying this unless it was already in the can. One presumes.

What will be interesting to see is how these recommendations are treated by those on the Sub-Committee representating political groupings opposed to Lisbon. Do they support them in part or full, and what implications would that have for any future referendum on the issue of Europe? Or to put it another way, if instituted would they be sufficient to assuage concerns over a modified Lisbon Treaty referendum?

And beyond that, what of the response from groups such as Cóir and Libertas who would appear to be beyond these ideas – not least because they, as yet, have no elected representatives. And there we see the inverse of the representational dislocation. Opportunities present themselves between now and whenever for that to amended… by the Irish people. Interesting to see the choices made.

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Comments»

1. Jim Monaghan - November 29, 2008

The Pana conference is on today.
http://www.pana.ie
for details. Carol Fox’s analyses on the site are always worth a read. She is very thoughtful and thourough.

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