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Cyprus Internet Directory [ Dublin v Lisbon, 1-0 ]

Dublin v Lisbon, 1-0

ON FRIDAY the 13th of June, when the Netherlands defeated France 4-1 in a sublime game of football, Ireland scored against the Treaty of Lisbon, derailing the reform process of the European Union.

It is unclear why the Irish turned against the EU. They have been traditionally pro-European. When it entered the EU in 1973, Ireland was the poorest member state. Today it is the second richest country of the Union after Luxembourg. Ireland has achieved that remarkable progress partly with the help of generous financial support from the EU.

It seems that the ‘no’ camp in Ireland used the same scare tactics as those of most opponents of the EU in other countries. Their arguments are now fairly standard. Here is a list of typical criticisms and why they are all very wrong.

“The EU is undemocratic”: This is nonsense. Everything the EU does must have a legal basis. That legal basis is provided by the European Union or the European Community Treaty. The EU cannot act arbitrarily or outside the boundaries of these Treaties. The Treaties have been signed by all the governments, which are democratically elected. Moreover, the Treaties have been ratified by national parliaments or through popular referendums. The Treaty of Lisbon is based on the now defunct Constitutional Treaty, which was drafted by a convention involving representatives of all EU governments and parliaments. The legislation which is adopted by the EU is normally approved by both the Council of Ministers, where all the governments are represented, and the European Parliament, whose members are directly elected by the people. The influence of any one country is naturally small, but that does not mean that the EU is undemocratic. Not being able to wield excessive influence is actually the natural consequence of democracy.

“The EU is ruled by bureaucrats”: This is also nonsense. It usually implies that the European Commission takes all the decisions and dictates policy. Since the Commission is the civil service of the Union, its officials are employed rather than elected. But they have no decision-making autonomy unless they exercise powers which are delegated to them by the Council or the Council and Parliament. All civil services in all countries exercise this kind of powers. There is nothing unusual about that. Otherwise if policy implementation would constantly require political approval it would be impossible in the modern world. More importantly, the Commission is headed by the 27-member College of Commissioners, who are proposed by national governments and approved by the European Parliament. In any normal country, the government makes many appointments, as for example, to the judiciary or independent regulatory authorities. But no one protests that it is undemocratic. It is true, however, that the Commission also exercises certain limited powers which emanate directly from the Treaties and are not conferred by the Council or Parliament. But this reflects the special role assigned to the Commission to ensure that member states fulfil their obligations. Given the frequent failure of member states to respect fundamental principles such as non-discrimination, it is this role of the Commission that has contributed to the unprecedented opening of borders and removal of restrictions in Europe during the past fifty years. It is also too conveniently forgotten that the Commission’s discretion is embedded in a complex system of checks and balances designed to prevent any institution from abusing its power. The Commission itself can be dismissed by the Parliament.

“The EU is too secretive and works behind closed doors”: The Commission consults widely before it submits any legislative proposal to the Council and Parliament. In fact, for any major piece of legislation it is required to carry out an assessment of its impact on the economy and society. In order to do that it must first solicit the views of those who are likely to be affected by new laws. Its decisions must be adequately reasoned. Anyone whose interests are affected can demand access to the relevant file and challenge the offending decision before Community courts. All rules and laws are easily accessible on the internet. Some minutes of the Council are published. The deliberations of the Parliament are also open to the public.

“The EU imposes its rules on member states”: All the member states are involved in the process of adopting legislation. The threshold for approval of new rules is pretty high – 74 per cent of the votes cast by the member states in the Council have to be in favour. It is difficult to impose any rule that is not supported by the overwhelming majority of member states. It is true, however, that occasionally individual member states find themselves isolated in the Council. That is when they pursue their narrow national interests. At any rate most new rules have to be approved by the majority of the directly-elected members of the European Parliament. It is also true that occasionally the Commission forces aberrant member states to comply with their obligations normally by initiating proceedings before the Court of Justice. But this is not tantamount to imposing unwanted rules. This is taking action against those who break the rules.

“The EU promotes free-market competition that favours large companies at the expense of social issues and the interests of individuals and small companies”: One of the fundamental objectives of the EU is to eliminate barriers to free trade and investment. But free trade and investment bring tremendous benefits to consumers. Most of the fines imposed by the European Commission to penalise price fixing or the charging of excessively high prices have targeted large companies. Small companies enjoy many exceptions from anti-trust prohibitions and are also treated more favourably by being allowed to receive public subsidies whereas large companies are not normally permitted access to such funds. There are also exceptions to the prohibition of restrictions to trade and investment whenever the interests of consumers are harmed or the safety of human life is at risk. There is no European rule that forces member states to lower their minimum wages or weaken their social security systems.

“Our money is wasted on the huge EU bureaucracy”: The administration of the Union absorbs about 5 per cent of the EU budget. The EU budget represents only 1 per cent of the EU gross income. The typical government budget of the average EU country accounts for more than 35 per cent of the national income. The EU, with 500 million inhabitants, has fewer than 30,000 civil servants employed in its institutions and agencies. Compare that to the 6 million who work in the public sector in Britain or the 500,000 who are officially counted as civil servants in that country of 60 million people.

These are not valid reasons for rejecting the Treaty of Lisbon. It does not make the EU stronger at the expense of member states. It has been claimed that the Irish voted against the Treaty because they thought it would compromise their traditional neutrality. This is another misconception. The new Treaty would not force any member state to participate in any joint EU military action against its will.

The opponents of the Treaty used a brilliantly simple but utterly demagogic and daft slogan: “If you don’t know, say no”. There are three responses to that. First, if you don’t know, try to learn. Second, any legal document is bound to be complex. This is especially true for treaties which must be written in particular style and use specific legal terms. It was probably a bad idea to put it to a national plebiscite. Democracy does not mean that the people have the expertise to understand the difficult concepts on which international treaties are based. Third, because of this reason, both sides of the argument had an obligation to explain the real issues to the Irish people. So, I don’t think the Irish referendum says anything meaningful about the present or future institutional structure of the European Union and the division of policy responsibility between the Union and the member states.

But one thing is clear. The other member states cannot ignore the outcome in Ireland and proceed with the Treaty of Lisbon. They will have to abandon it or renegotiate it. According to press reports, one idea is to give specific assurances to Ireland that the EU will not encroach in certain of its policies such as taxation, abortion or foreign affairs. Ireland then could try again to ratify the Treaty.

European Presidents and Prime Ministers, who gathered for their regular meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, decided to postpone discussion on the Treaty of Lisbon until they meet again on October 15. The Irish Prime Minister will then make appropriate proposals to them. Perhaps they also opted to put the whole matter on ice until the Czech constitutional court delivers its judgement. Lisbon is also having problems in Prague.

When considering that voters in France and the Netherlands rejected in 2005 the very similar Constitutional Treaty, a much better approach would be to forget about extensive institutional and policy changes and, instead, reduce the Treaty of Lisbon to the most essential points which are necessary for the enlarged EU to function effectively: simplified voting in the Council, a head for the Council and streamlined representation of the EU in world affairs. We need to terminate this seemingly endless process of reform. It only damages the credibility of the Union.

n Phedon Nicolaides is Professor at the European Institute of Public Administration, Maastricht (NL) and Visiting Professor at the Cyprus International Institute of Management


(Source: Cyprus Mail)

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