Monday, 22 October 2007

The Irish government should set up the referendum commission soon, with time and resources to inform citizens about this new EU treaty


The Government should set up the statutory Referendum Commission well in advance of the necessary Irish referendum on the Renamed EU Constitutional Treaty, which will be agreed in principle in Portugal today, so that citizens can be properly informed before they vote on it.

The eyes of Europe – maybe even of the world – will be on Ireland when we hold our referendum on this Treaty, for we are likely to be the only one of 27 EU Member States to have a vote on it. The good functioning of the Referendum Commission is vital to Ireland being seen to have a fair and democratic referendum process.

The five-person Referendum Commission is the body provided for in the 1998 Referendum Act with the function of informing citizens what a referendum is about and encouraging maximum turnout of voters.

Calling the Referendum Commission into being should be done months before Ireland’s referendum, and not just a few weeks before as previously, so that the Commission members will have enough time, first of all to inform themselves, and then the Irish voting public, on the implications of this important and complex constitutional Treaty, for this could well be the last referendum that Ireland will have on the EU.

Former Chief Justice T.A. Finlay, who chaired the Referendum Commission for the two Nice Treaty referendums, was critical of the time the Government gave it to do its job in his reports on those referendums. He was implicitly critical also of referendums on complex EU treaties being held simulataneously with other referendums on quite different matters.

The Referendum Commission is more likely to give the objective and impartial facts about this Treaty than the partisan bodies on either side, such as the political parties, the European Movement, the National Platform etc. – important and essential though their role in the referendum is.

The Referendum Commission consists of the Clerks of the Dail and Seanad, the Ombudsman, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and a senior judge who is nominated by the Government as Chairman.

Although the Government amended the Referendum Act to remove from the Referendum Commission the function of informing citizens of the main Yes-side and No-side arguments on particular referendum propositions in order to help get the Nice Treaty ratified, the Commission still retains its functions of telling citizens what particular referendums are about and encouraging maximum voter turnout. But it needs adequate time and resources to carry out these important democratic tasks. It was given EUR3.5 million for this purpose in the 2002 Nice Two referendum, although it could have done with extra time even then. The setting up of the Referendum Commission does not need to wait until the referendum date is decided on. The importance of the upcoming referendum is shown by the following facts about the proposed new EU Treaty: –

What the Renamed EU Constitutional Treaty would do:

1. Giving the EU a Federal State Constitution: The treaty would establish a legally new European Union, quite different from what we call the EU at present, with the constitutional form of a supranational Federal State that would be separate from and superior to its Member States, just as the USA is separate from and superior to California, Texas etc. It would do this in three key legal steps: (a) establishing a new European Union with its own legal personality and distinct corporate existence for the first time; (b) abolishing the distinction between the supranational and intergovernmental “pillars” of the two existing European Treaties, so that all powers of government can be exercised by the new Union, either actually or potentially, through a uniform constitutional structure; and (c) making us all real citizens of this new Union for the first time, rather than just notional or honorary EU “citizens” as at present, for one can only be a citizen of a State.

2. Abolishing the national veto in 68 new areas or matters: the new Treaty would introduce qualified majority voting(QMV) on the EU Council of Ministers for 68 areas or matters for the first time – 48 of these referring to new areas of EU law-making and 20 to a shift from unanimity to majority-voting for existing EU legal bases. That would remove the national veto for these 68 areas or matters. This figure of 68 compares with 46 areas or matters moved to QMV by the 2002 Treaty of Nice, 24 by the 1998 Treaty of Amsterdam, 30 by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on European Union, 12 by the 1987 Single European Act and 38 by the original 1957 Treaty of Rome and its associated Treaties. Each of these shifts of power from the national to the supranational level entails a shift from the Legislative arm of government to the Executive arm and from elected national Parliaments and citizens to Government Ministers and senior civil servants. They hollow out our democracy further.

3. Giving more voting power to the Big States: The new Treaty would introduce a new voting system on the Council of Ministers, making population size a key criterion, which would particularly advantage big States like Germany and reduce the influence of smaller ones like Ireland.

4. Removing the right to a permanent EU Commissioner: It would remove the right of each Member State to have an EU Commissioner for two out of every three Commission terms, i.e. for five years out of every 15. Big States would lose their right to a permanent Commissioner also, but they have other means of exerting their influence on this body which proposes all EU laws. Having a permanent Commissioner has always been recognised as much more important for smaller States like Ireland.

5. Giving the EU the final power to decide our rights: The new Treaty would give the EU the final power to decide our human and civil rights in all areas of EU law, including Member States when implementing EU law, which now constitutes the greater part of our laws each year. This would make the EU Court of Justice rather than the Irish Supreme Court, or the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the final decider of our rights in many areas. The EU Court of Justice would be more remote, slower to work and more expensive for citizens to get to as they seek to establish their rights.

6. A self-amending Treaty: The new Treaty would contain a mechanism enabling qualified majority voting to be sustituted for unanimity in eight policy areas by decision of EU governments, without need for new treaties or referendums.

(Signed) Anthony Coughlan
Secretary
THE NATIONAL PLATFORM EU RESEARCH AND INFORMATION CENTRE
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