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Commissioner Margot WALLSTRÖM

Vice-President, Institutional Relations & Communication Strategy, European Commission

Ireland and Lisbon: giving people the facts

Irish Institute of European Affairs
Brussels, 7 april 2008

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

Dia Dhaoibh! Hello!

A few weeks ago I was in your lovely country, taking part in a lively debate at the National Forum on Europe. Today, I'm delighted to be once again among Irish people.

Although, I must say that when I was in Ireland I was slightly surprised to find that in terms of news related to Europe, the Lisbon Treaty was sharing the headlines with Dustin the Turkey! I gave a very serious interview to one newspaper about the Lisbon Treaty and the next day the headlines were 'Top Eurocrat says our turkey can go all the way!"

Anyway, thank you for inviting me here to join you in discussing key European issues. The issue uppermost in our minds is, of course, not Dustin but the Lisbon Treaty – and let me start by congratulating you on your excellent "consolidated" edition of the text. Ever since the Treaty was signed, people have been crying out for a version they can read for themselves – so your edition is most welcome. It's a solid basis for an informed debate.

And I see that the Council has now been persuaded to publish an official consolidated text so perhaps the various appeals to have one did not fall on deaf ears. I would like to point out that this will be the first time that an official consolidated text has been produced before a new treaty enters into force.

I want to take a look today at some of the arguments of those campaigning against the Treaty.

But first, can I recall quickly why we need a new Treaty at all:

First, you can't run a Union of 27 countries with machinery designed for a Community of six.

Second, Europe needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century. EU countries need to get their collective act together in areas such as climate change and energy security.

Third, the EU needs to become more efficient, more transparent, more united on the world stage, more secure and – above all – more democratic.

And I want to emphasise the democracy aspect today, because the NO campaigners spend a good deal of time defining themselves as the democrats.

The Treaty gives more power to the national parliaments, to the European Parliament and also directly to citizens.

Members of national parliaments will have greater powers to challenge Commission proposals.

The European Parliament will have greater law-making powers, because "co-decision" will be extended into new policy areas.

For the first time, every EU citizen will have the official right to petition the Commission to bring forward new policy proposals. This citizen's initiative will only require one million signatures from a number of EU countries.

So in this context, let me turn to the objections raised by the "NO" campaigners.

Some of these are simply myths. In Ireland, it doesn't matter how many times it is said, the idea that the Treaty will open the door to tax harmonisation still circulates. Let's be clear, unanimity will remain for tax in the new Treaty, at the insistence of a number of Member States, including Ireland.

A second myth raised by NO campaigners is that the Treaty compromises Ireland's neutrality. Again this is untrue.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, as under previous treaties, defence remains a matter of national sovereignty.

What about a common European defence policy?

Given the dangerous world we live in, EU governments see the need for a collective response to some security situations beyond our borders. For example, sending EU peacekeeping forces to places like Chad and Darfur.

But each Government is free to decide what forces, if any, it will commit to any particular operation. In any case, Ireland's Constitution states that it cannot join a common European defence arrangement unless it is approved by a separate referendum of the Irish people. In Ireland, the triple lock protecting neutrality will not be affected.

So the bogeyman of a "militaristic EU" sweeping young Irish men and women off to war is a complete myth.

A third myth is that the Lisbon Treaty will undermine workers' rights. This is a particularly strange idea. In fact, the Treaty will give added protection to the rights of EU citizens.

How? By making the EU a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. And by giving legal force to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Charter is a document setting out the rights EU citizens already enjoy. These include the right to life, to education, to freedom of thought, to equality before the law... and workers' rights such as the right of collective bargaining and collective action.

It is important to distinguish what the Lisbon treaty will do for the rights of workers from the impact of recent Court judgements, like Laval, Viking and Ruffert, based on existing EU legislation which in turn was adopted on the basis of the existing Treaties.

The fourth and perhaps the most absurd myth is that the Lisbon Treaty is "self-amending".

In other words, that it enables the EU to by-pass democratic processes when it comes to future Treaty revisions. After all the work in generating the political compromises among 27 Member States to agree on a text, perhaps it would be a relief if this new beast could just do all this by itself!

But it is nonsense. The relevant piece of the Treaty is Article 48, which lays down that EU powers can neither be increased nor decreased unless decided by an Inter-Governmental Conference.

The changes also have to be ratified by all the member states in accordance with their constitutional requirements. For Ireland this means, of course, a referendum. No change there.

Article 48 also says that the member states have to approve any change in EU policies, and that there has to be unanimous agreement before any EU policy area can be moved from unanimity to majority voting.

Clearly, therefore, the Reform Treaty is NOT self-amending.

Other objections are a little more sophisticated. I have some sympathy with those who point out that the Treaty is hard to read though I don't accept the idea that this was done as a conspiracy to prevent people understanding it. Someone called it "a Treaty of footnotes". That's why I'm so glad we are starting to see good consolidated editions such as the Institute's.

Having said that, no-one expects an international Treaty to be either great literature or a thrilling page-turner you can read in bed. It's more like a cookery recipe – a list of ingredients and a set of instructions that enable the cook to produce a satisfying meal.

Or at any rate, in the case of the Lisbon Treaty, a meal acceptable to 27 dinner guests with varying tastes and a number of allergies!

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating" – as the proverb says.

A sixth objection is that the Lisbon Treaty was drafted behind closed doors, without public debate.

I also have some sympathy with this one, but we have to look at the end result, and in the end people should make their judgement on that. I'm very much in favour of open government and I actively encourage public debate about the future of Europe.

Moreover, many of the changes it introduces were discussed to a large extent in a very open manner by the European Convention some years ago.

That's what the European Commission's "Plan D" was all about. That's what its successor, "Debate Europe", is also all about: getting Europe's citizens actively involved in shaping policies and setting the agenda.

However, the Lisbon Treaty is not about setting agendas or shaping policies. It is about the technical "nuts and bolts" of the EU – and, quite frankly, not many people are very interested in nuts and bolts.

Number seven is the accusation that the Lisbon Treaty is the same as the Constitution. Well, the Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty were designed to do essentially the same job. So, inevitably, they are very similar.
You might even say they are 90% identical. But, as one member of the European Parliament pointed out, so is the DNA of mice and of humans! It's the ten percent difference that matters.

So, what are the differences? Aside from the jettisoning of the Constitutional structure itself, and the symbols (which should not be minimised), the Treaty contains innovations that were not in the Constitution. For example:

  • EU solidarity in the event of an energy supply problem
  • an additional check on subsidiarity of EU proposals by national parliaments
  • and a reference to criteria that candidate countries must meet before joining the Union.

So the Lisbon Treaty is very similar to the Constitution, but it is also significantly different – because the work of preparing it was mainly about how best to take account of the concerns that motivated French and Dutch "No" voters in 2005. They were mostly concerns about specific issues such as globalisation and job security. Only a small minority were opposed to the whole idea of a European Union.
Number 8: the NO campaigners say that the Lisbon Treaty transfers power from national governments to the EU in a vast range of new policy areas. Is this true?

As I said earlier, the Treaty does give the EU powers and responsibilities in the field of climate change and energy security. Most people welcome this. Indeed, most EU citizens have been clamouring for EU action in these areas.

The extension of majority voting also means that individual governments will no longer be able to veto EU decisions on cross-border crime, asylum policy and immigration. But national ministers will still be taking those decisions – along with the democratically elected European Parliament, and national parliaments will be given new powers to make sure that EU policies are proportionate and respect subsidiarity.

Finally, outside Ireland, No campaigners say there should be referenda on this Treaty in other countries. The method that each Member State chooses is, frankly, none of my business. Some Member States use referendums, others prefer votes in Parliament. Both are equally valid, equally democratic. It's up to each government to decide its own approach.

But whichever ratification method a country chooses, its citizens have a right to information about this Treaty and a right to hear the arguments both for and against it. So I would like to see a lively debate on the Lisbon Treaty taking place right across the EU.
In Ireland, the Government and the National Forum are already doing a great deal to promote that debate: holding town hall meetings, issuing user-friendly guides to the Treaty, and producing helpful factual summaries of its contents.

The Commission is also playing its part. The Reform Treaty is one of the hottest topics on our new "Debate Europe" online forum. In the eight weeks since it was launched this forum has received almost fifteen thousand comments. In fact, of the top 5 topics of the hundreds in the whole discussion forum, one is entitled 'Ireland vote NO to the Lisbon Treaty! No to dictatorship!' while another is entitled 'Ireland vote YES to the Lisbon Treaty!' So, the whole of Europe is watching what happens in Ireland.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me conclude by saying how I want the Irish people to vote in June. I want them to vote... on the basis of facts and knowledge – not on the basis of fear and ignorance.

As the saying goes, a lie will go half way round the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.

I urge you, members of the Irish Institute of European Affairs, to help ensure that the truth gets its boots on.

I invite you to go to the "Debate Europe" online forum and discuss the Treaty there with people from all over Europe.
In practice, it's a choice between two treaties:

  • the Lisbon Treaty, with the reforms it will bring,
  • and the present Treaty of Nice, with its well-known shortcomings.

And I honestly believe that the new Treaty will be an important step in that direction.

Thank you very much.

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