Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Neverendums - Did The Republic Of Ireland Vote Twice?

The Irish Government has announced that referendums will be held in 2015 on a couple of issues, namely reducing the voting age to 17 and introducing same-sex marriage.

One feature of Irish politics is that any amendments to the Constitution have to be put to the people in a referendum as part of the ratification process, and indeed, sometimes proposed amendments get rejected - such as last month's on abolishing the Seanad Éireann. In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled on in which circumstances a European Union Treaty would require an amendment to the Constitution and ergo a referendum.

When it came to the Treaty of Lisbon there were two Irish referendums. The first, in June 2008, saw the Treaty rejected, but the second, in October 2009, saw the Treaty approved.

And this is taken as evidence that if a country votes the "wrong" way, then "Europe" makes them vote again and again until they vote the "right" way. But is it?

To consider this, first ask ourselves which two British Prime Ministers have had the most influence in the direction the EU has taken? Now, you might think the logical answers are the Conservatives' Edward Heath - for taking the United Kingdom into the European Communities in the first place - and Labour's Tony Blair, clearly the most enthusiastic pro-EU Prime Minister since Heath.

But although they had a major impact on the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe, they were not responsible for any major changes across the EU.

The two Prime Ministers I am thinking of are both Conservatives - Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

In her Bruges Speech - delivered at a time when many central and eastern European countries were under Moscow's thumb and Berlin was still divided, Thatcher stated:

We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, people who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities.

Note that she was not calling for EU expansion. But she was reminding a cozy Western European club that there were hundreds of millions of Europeans not living in the freedom and prosperity we take for granted.

For these countries, when it comes to NATO and the EU, it is a both/and rather than an either/or.

Major came up with a practical innovation. When it came to the Treaty of Maastricht, he ensured that there were a couple of important statements in the Protocols.

The first of these is:

THE HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES, RECOGNIZING that the United Kingdom shall not be obliged or committed to move to the third stage of Economic and Monetary Union without a separate decision to do so by its government and Parliament,

NOTING the practice of the government of the United Kingdom to fund its borrowing requirement by the sale of debt to the private sector,

HAVE AGREED the following provisions, which shall be annexed to the Treaty establishing the European Community:

1. The United Kingdom shall notify the Council whether it intends to move to the third stage before the Council makes its assessment under Article 109j(2) of this Treaty. Unless the United Kingdom notifies the Council that it intends to move to the Third Stage, it shall be under no obligation to do so.....

And the second of these is:

NOTING that eleven Member States, that is to say the Kingdom of Belgium, the Kingdom of Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Hellenic Republic, the Kingdom of Spain, the French Republic, Ireland, the Italian Republic, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Portuguese Republic, wish to continue along the path laid down in the 1989 Social Charter; that they have adopted among themselves an Agreement to this end; that this Agreement is annexed to this Protocol; that this Protocol and the said Agreement are without prejudice to the provisions of this Treaty, particularly those relating to social policy which constitute an integral part of the acquis communautaire:

Basically, the first of these is the opt-out from adopting the €, and the second is the opt-out from the Protocol on Social Policy - or the Social Chapter as it was often referred to.

Thanks to Major, there was a system whereby nations could secure opt-outs from parts of Treaties, and the rest of the EU would work around them.

Now consider the following scenario - Major assents to the Treaty of Maastricht in its entirety, and the Bill incorporating it into law is presented to Parliament. And then kicked out over these two issues. Major then goes back to the European Council, negotiates these opt-outs, and a new Bill is presented to Parliament and passed.

Would you say that Parliament was asked to vote again as it failed to give the "right" answer? Or would you say the Government - in the light of rejection - renegotiated parts of it with the European Council?

And we can now look at the Republic of Ireland's first rejection in that context. For example, an argument from Sinn Féin was that due to the Treaty of Lisbon, Irish neutrality would be put at risk:

Ireland for generations has prided itself on its position as a military neutral and also as a symbol of peace keeping in conflicts through its commitment to the United Nations. Successive EU treaties and government policy have gradually undermined this position with efforts to create an EU common defence policy. The case has yet to be made for why the EU must have common EU foreign, security or defence policies or a diplomatic service, yet this is exactly what the government are asking us to sign up to.

The Lisbon Treaty will result in greater amounts of Irish taxpayers’ money being spent on Irish and EU military capabilities. It will further consolidate the EUs control over foreign and security policy. It will allow for the emergence of mini military alliances of member states and for the first time the EU will have its own Foreign Minister with a diplomatic corps who will oversee such policies.

There were concerns about other parts of the Treaty, in particular one relating to the European Commission:

The Commission appointed between the date of entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon and 31 October 2014 shall consist of one national of each Member State, including its President and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who shall be one of its Vice-Presidents.

As from 1 November 2014, the Commission shall consist of a number of members, including its President and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, corresponding to two thirds of the number of Member States, unless the European Council, acting unanimously, decides to alter this number.The members of the Commission shall be chosen from among the nationals of the Member States on the basis of a system of strictly equal rotation between the Member States, reflecting the demographic and geographical range of all the Member States. This system shall be established unanimously by the European Council in accordance with Article 211a of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Basically, from November next year - unless the European Council decides otherwise, as indeed it has - the Commission was to be reduced, so that only two-thirds of nations (with 28 members, this would be 19) would have Commissioners.

To deal with the bulk of Irish concerns, the European Council gave a set of guarantees, which have now become a set of Protocols.

The people do not have the ability to amend or renegotiate Treaties. The referendum device - which we now have thanks to the European Union Act 2011 - is a blunt instrument, which can be used to veto. But it is better than nothing. Via opinion polls and consultations, it can become clear what specific parts people were unhappy about, and this gives Governments the chance to go back and have things changed.

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