Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Mary Lou McDonald keynote address opposing EU Constitution

28 May, 2005


The EU Constitution is without doubt one of the most important issues facing Ireland today. If ratified, it will mark an important shift in our relationship with the EU. It will also mark a shift for the EU itself, both in terms of structures and policies.

In light of this, it is vital that people across Ireland have the opportunity to learn and debate these issues well in advance of any referendum. Sinn Féin strongly believes that a broad public debate is absolutely essential if we as a nation are to grapple with the many complex and detailed issues contained within the Constitution.

This weekend's conference is part of Sinn Féin's contribution to that debate.

Last week we launched our analysis of the Constitution, which is available to delegates here today and on our web site. And after this event we will be initiating a nation wide series of events and activities to provoke discussion and debate.

Sinn Féin is opposed to the EU Constitution. However we do not accept that this debate is between pro and anti Europeans. This is not a debate over whether you support or reject the EU. Indeed for Sinn Féin the EU has and will continue to play an important and valuable part in the lives of all member states. Our approach to the EU is one of critical engagement, those things that are in the interests of the Irish people we support and seek to further, those things that are not we oppose and campaign to change.

This debate is about the very future of the European Union. It is a clash of opposing visions of what the EU means, what it does and how it does it.

France & Holland

Tomorrow France will vote in their referendum and next Wednesday the Dutch will do likewise. Like most people here, I have be watching the twists and turns of the debates in those countries in recent weeks, as opinion polls have given either side a marginal lead. I have also watched the way in which some sections of the Irish media have misrepresented the nature of the No campaigns in each country, and uncritically profiled elements of the Yes side. This is a shame, as the debate in France has been long and detailed, and has certainly allowed me to get a better grasp of some of the issued involved.

What is most interesting in both campaigns is the nature of the opposition to the Constitution. In both countries the No camp is lead by the left, including socialists, social democrats, radical greens, global and trade justice campaigners, feminists and democratic reform campaigners. Their arguments cannot be characterised as eurosceptic or anti Europe. Rather, in a general sense, they are people who are committed to an alternative vision of how the EU can work. They are opposed to those elements of the Constitution that deepen the democratic deficit, liberalise economic policy and privatise public services, that allocate greater resources to the militarisation of the EU, and that pursue an agenda that is bad for the developing world.

In short, the No campaigns in France and Holland are arguing that another Europe is possible, that the debate on the future of the EU needs to be reopened and the first step in doing so is to reject this Constitution.

Of course, in France and Holland, like in Ireland, a section of the Yes campaign is trying to present the No campaign as right wing, xenophobic, parochial, and over focused on domestic issues to the detriment of the 'bigger European ideal'. There is even an argument that opposition to the Constitution has nothing to do with the content of the text, but rather a desire to punish government for other policy failures. They are saying that to vote No is to be anti Europe. Some are even saying that to vote No would lead to the end of the European Union itself.

Such scare mongering serves several purposes. Clearly it is an attempt to frighten undecided or unsure voters into supporting the treaty. However, it is also an indication of the lack of any coherent argument for supporting the Constitution itself.

Seanad Debate

I had the opportunity to take part in a debate last week in the Seanad on this very issue. All 26 county MEPs were invited to participate, although our colleagues for the 6 counties were excluded. What was striking during that debate was the absence of any meaningful or specific arguments in favour of the Constitution. Speaker after speaker spoke about the many benefits which the EU had brought to Ireland, and that in light of this, support for the Constitution was the only possibly way forward. One speaker went so far as to say opposition to the Constitution equalled opposition to environmental protection, agricultural subsidies, gender equality and structural funds. Another speaker suggested that voters should only read Part I of the treaty, as it told you everything you needed to know about the Constitution.

A number of speakers rounded on Sinn Féin and our opposition to the treaty. One speaker suggested that our position defied logic and demonstrated a blatant disregard for the truth. Yes none of these speakers responded to our detailed arguments about large sections of the Constitution. Instead they retreated into bland generalisations about the benefits of the EU and the dire consequences of a failure to successfully ratify the treaty.

There is a cosy consensus within the Dáil among Fianna Fáil, PDs, Labour and Fine Gael on the EU and it is not healthy. Indeed it is damaging to Ireland and has resulted in an entire lack of analysis of where this process is taking us.

Sinn Féin's analysis of the constitution focuses on eleven areas of concern, which are outlined in our document 'Ireland and the EU Constitution'. Today I want to focus on just four of those areas, as other speakers during this conference will deal with others.

I want to look at the questions of democracy, the role of national parliaments, economic policy, and policy towards the developing world.

There are many other areas of concern, which have been discussed by speakers today. In particular the issues of militarisation and Irish neutrality are central to Sinn Féin's opposition to the constitution. My colleague Esko Sepannen MEP outlined many of these concerns from the perspective of Finland, another neutral state. Like him, many people in Ireland are concerned that the proposed Constitution seeks to transform the EU into a global superpower, with its own Foreign Minister, army and armaments agency. There is also a lot of anger at the failure of the Irish government to argue for a specific article requiring a UN mandate an article protecting neutrality.

Constitutionalisation of Policy

It is also important to emphasise one of the overarching issues which concerns Sinn Féin, and that is what we call the 'constutionalisation of EU policy'. Put simply this refers to the fact that both existing and new areas of policy contained within Constitution can only be changed by unanimity among the member states. If the Constitution is ratified in all member states, it will only be possible to alter its text by unanimity.

If a member state does not like the policies of its government it holds an election and chooses an alternative. This is democracy.

Under existing EU treaties, if member states are unhappy with aspects of the design or operation of the EU they can renegotiate, as happened recently with the Growth and Stability Pack.

However under the terms of the Constitution, if the citizens of a member state are no longer happy with the policy direction of the EU and its impact on their country, they do not have the right to exercise the ordinary democratic function of electing a new government. Rather they are bound to the detailed policy prescriptions contained within its articles.

Giscard d'Estaing, the head of the Convention on the Future of Europe, who drafted the original Constitutional text, has said that he expects this constitution to last for 50 years. 50 years of being bound by unanimity into detailed institutional frameworks and policy principles. This is a significant shift from the present situation, which although still restrictive, gives member states more room for renegotiation and change.

So the debate on the EU Constitution is not just about those elements of the treaty that are new. It is about the entire text and the way in which, if ratified, Ireland and the citizens of the 25 member states will be locked into a right wing policy framework and undemocratic institutional structure for decades to come.


How will the constitution impact on the functioning of democracy at a national and EU level?

Article 1-7 states that, 'The Union shall have legal personality'. This small sentence has profound consequences. It transforms the EU from a body of co-operating legal entities, the Member States, into a single legal entity in its own right. It gives the EU an independent corporate existence, whose authority will be derived, not from the Member States or their citizens, but the Constitution.

Article 1-6 firmly establishes EU law as superior to national law, in those areas outlined in the Constitution.

More significantly Article IV-444 states, 'Where part III provides for the Council to act by unanimity in a given area or case, the European Council may adopt a European decision authorising the Council to act by a qualified majority in that area or in that case.'

As a consequence of this article, the 25 political leaders of the Member States would have the power, without recourse to the European Parliament or more importantly national parliaments and the citizens of the Member States, to extend the powers conferred on the EU. This is known as the as the 'escalator or Passarelle clause. It would allow the European Council to extend the areas or cases under which, by a Qualified Majority Vote, EU law would operate and thus have primacy. QMV is defined in the proposed Constitution as: 55% of members of the Council, compromising at least 15 Member States who in turn make up at least 65% of the population of the EU.

The Irish governments referendum bill published yesterday indicated that any use of this or related escalator clauses could only take place following consultation with the Irish parliament. However it is unclear to what extent this guarantee is binding and how it would work out in practice. It is also unclear if the text of the bill would protect Irish citizens right to a referendum if and when significant changes are being made under these or indeed other articles of the Constitution.

The escalator clause would remove the need for new Treaties covering any proposed changes to the powers and scope of EU competencies. Rather further changes to EU practice or policy would happen in a more incremental, piece meal way, further undermining public awareness and scrutiny.

The Constitution also proposes that more than 40 further areas of government policy or national-decision making will be transferred from national governments to Brussels institutions. The Constitution specifically removes 63 national vetoes.

Taken with article 1-7 (granting the EU a legal personality), these articles firmly establish the EU as a proto-federal state with the power to extend its own powers independently of national parliaments and the citizens of Member States. The consequence is a profound challenge for Irish democracy.

The word 'Federal' featured prominently in the earlier draft of the Constitution presented by the Convention. However it was removed during the private negotiations of the Inter-governmental Conference, not to reduce the federalist implications of the Constitution, but in order to make the Constitution easier to sell in all member states. Federalists were unhappy but realised that the removal of the term was cosmetic.

The Greens/ European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, an honestly and unashamedly Federalist group, recognised this fact. In supporting the final draft they stated that the Constitution, 'transforms Europe from a collection of states into a unified body in the eyes of international law' and that it, 'creates a political area in which European unification can be translated from a plan devised by the elite and by state chancelleries into a European res publica'.

Sinn Féin also has serious concerns with the changes in operation of Qualified Majority Voting and the lack of meaningful powers for involvement of national parliaments in the decision making process. The detail of these arguments are outlined in our pamphlet.

A simple but important example of how these articles would operate and effect ordinary people can be seen in the area of international trade agreements. The EU, under the common commercial policy, and having a single legal personality would negotiate international trade agreements on behalf of all member states. The terms of reference for and outcomes of such negotiations would be decided by Qualified Majority Vote. These decisions would have primacy over Irish law, and indeed Irish public opinion.

The ending of the national veto on services such as health and education in this field would open the welfare services of member states to international private companies with the resulting loss of public sector jobs and universal service provision. And all of this could happen irrespective of whether an Irish government or the Irish people supported such changes.

While drafted in opaque and legalistic jargon, these elements of the Constitution will have a real and tangible impact on the lives of ordinary people across the European Union. Their net result will be the undermining of Irish democracy and sovereignty.

National Parliaments

Supporters of the Constitution in Ireland are making much of the allegedly increased powers for national parliaments in the EU decision-making process. The so called yellow card system is being presented as a real democratic advance. The reality, however, is rather different.

The Constitution's Protocols on the Role of National Parliaments in the EU and on the Application of the Principles of Subsidiarity and Proportionality would indeed improve the information flow from the EU to the national parliaments. But they do not extend the power of effective intervention to the national parliaments and even less so to the regional and local levels.

Articles 1 and 2 of the Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments requires the Commission to send proposals to the national parliaments, who only have six weeks, or ten days where a matter is considered urgent, to judge whether they satisfy the subsidiarity principle, and to submit an opinion to the EU Council, Parliament and Commission.

Under Article 7 of the Protocol on the Application of the Principles of Subsidiarity and Proportionality the Commission is only required to review its proposal if one third of the votes of national parliaments (each has two votes) claim non-compliance (or one quarter in the case of Justice measures). The Commission can still decide to proceed regardless of the objections raised, unless Member States or national parliaments succeed in stopping them through litigation in the EU Court of Justice.

Considering the size and detail, not to mention the legal and constitutional implications of many Commission proposals, such a time scale is simply unrealistic. This does not amount to an effective mechanism for involvement or intervention by national parliaments, much less by regional or local levels of government.

In reality, it only makes provision for the national parliaments to be informed about EU measures and to indicate their position to the Commission. This is a rather cosmetic exercise that will not generate greater levels of parliamentary or public scrutiny of EU policy decisions, and much less real involvement of these actors in the EU decision-making process.

Economic Policy

The European Union was at its origins intended to act as a mechanism for coordinating aspects of the economic life of member states to mutual advantage. In recent years it has prioritised the development of the Internal Market. The thrust of the economic policy as outlined in the Constitution, recent directives such as those on services, working time and software patents, and the outworking of the Lisbon Agenda clearly demonstrate the right wing, pro market, pro liberalisation agenda which lies at the core of the present EU project.

The impact of such measures will be to increase pressure on Member States to further reduce levels of public spending; to prioritise privatisation over the provision of public services; to promote free trade and capital liberalisation at the expense of job creation, wealth redistribution, and sustainable managed economic growth. A clear example of this can be seen when we look at the specific implications of the proposed Constitution for public services.

Proponents of the Constitution argue that it will improve the quality of life and social protections for people across the EU. However key aspects of policy provision detailed in Part III actively undermine and contradict such rhetorical commitments. Nowhere is this more clear than in those sections dealing with public services and common commercial policy.

Article III-130 states that: 'The internal market shall comprise an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of persons, services, goods and capital is ensured in accordance with the Constitution.'

Along with Articles 161 and 168, this constitutes a major threat to the welfare state and public services in general. It constitutionally obliges Member States to ensure the free movement of services, thus limiting the ability of Member States to provide universal free service provision through the welfare state or health and education system. Member States will lose the right to prevent or restrict the involvement of the private sector in such provision. It prevents governments from using state aid in ways that would 'distort competition with the internal market', irrespective of whether that aid was being used to save jobs or deliver public services to those who cannot afford services provided privately. Such aid will be banned, and Member States will be monitored and censured if they do not comply.

All of this will lead to the creation of two-tier services such as health and education, whereby the wealthy can afford good quality services, and those on low pay or the unemployed will receive an even lower level of provision.

More troubling Article III-314 states that '..the Union shall contribute, in the common interest, to ... the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade and on foreign direct investment, and the lowering of customs and other barriers'

As more and more aspects of public service provision are opened up to commercial forces e.g. the increasing use of Public Private Partnerships, the influence of the common commercial policy on the provision of these services will grow.

The Constitution also ends Member States a veto on international trade in services, even if the Member State has an electoral mandate to protect them. The unqualified veto on trade in health, education and cultural and audiovisual services is removed for the first time.

The further extension of the internal market, the liberalisation of international trade agreements and the ending of the national veto over health, education and audiovisual services including public broadcasting will have profound consequences for the Irish economy. Our public services are already in crisis and Fianna Fail-PD led privatisation is not the answer. The Constitution will not only accelerate such failed Thatcherite policies but considerably extend and deepen them. This will lead to greater levels of inequality, poverty and social exclusion

The Developing World

Sinn Féin believes that the EU can play a positive role in world politics, promoting peace, conflict resolution, social and economic development, eradication of poverty and disease, sustainable development and strengthening and reforming the United Nations. We strongly believe in the full attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, the meeting of UN targets for development aid from EU Member States, and the introduction of development aids such as the Tobin Tax (a small tax on international financial transactions). Unfortunately, the proposed Constitution does not match these goals.

It is already clear that the prioritising of trade and market liberalisation both in EU practice to date and enshrined in the draft Constitution means placing the requirements of the market before those of developing countries and their populations. The liberalising of the movement of capital (article III-156) would make the introduction of a modest development aid like the Tobin Tax impossible.

Moreover article III-314 states that, '...the Union shall contribute, in the common interest, to the harmonious development of world trade, the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade and on foreign direct investment, and the lowering of customs and other barriers'.

The consequence of this article, as a guide for the EU negotiating and signing international trade treaties with developing world countries would be to open domestic markets in the developing world to multi national corporations irrespective of the impact on the local economy and levels of poverty and social exclusion. The impact of free trade agreements such as NAFTA on developing world countries in Latin America is already well documented, and leads to greater levels of poverty, disease, social dislocation and environmental damage. The proposed Constitution will copper fasten such approaches to the EU's relations with the developing world, rendering other approaches unconstitutional.

A worrying development is the linking of humanitarian aid with 'the fight against terrorism'. Article III-309 explicitly links provisions of the Common Security and Defence Policy with the provision of aid mission and other humanitarian tasks. Aid NGOs have said that 'Development co-operation must not be subordinated to EU foreign, security or commercial policy agendas in the EUs policy or institutional framework. The Treaty must make explicit reference to the autonomy, neutrality, and impartiality of EU humanitarian aid. It should not constitute an instrument for EU security policy in a 'war on terror'.

Unfortunately the proposed Constitution does link humanitarian missions and aid to commercial, security, defence and foreign policy in ways that can only be detrimental to the needs of the developing world.

Another Europe is Possible

The Laeken Declaration which established the Convention on the Future of Europe called for 'more democracy, transparency and efficiency' in the EU. It said there was a need to 'clarify, simplify and adjust the division of competencies between the Union and the Member States.' It acknowledged that people across the European Union did not want a 'European superstate.' Clearly the Convention has failed in these tasks. It has produced less democracy, less transparency and less clarity. Moreover in the rush to produce a federalist constitution it ignored the other options set out in the terms of the Laeken Declaration.

Sinn Féin wants to see the original intentions of the Laeken Declaration realised. We want to build a Europe of Equals - a true partnership of equal sovereign states, co-operating in social and economic development in Europe and beyond. We want an EU that promotes peace, demilitarisation and nuclear disarmament and the just resolution of conflicts under the leadership of a reformed, renewed and democratised United Nations. We want an EU that respects and promotes national, collective and individual rights (including human, political, social, cultural and economic rights). We want an economically and socially just EU, not an EU that is merely another economic superpower. Equally we want a globally responsible, fair-trading EU that leads the way on reaching the Millennium Development Goals for halving global poverty by 2015.

Ultimately, we want a future United Ireland to take an active, leading role in such a reformed EU.

Tomorrows debates will examine more of these issues in detail, and the final session, Another Europe is Possible, will look beyond the Constitution and discuss how this alternative vision of the EU can be realised.

However what is clear is that the first step in this journey is the rejection of the proposed EU Constitution. Sinn Féin believes that another Europe is possible; we want to play an active and forward-looking part in building that Europe.

Over the next twelve months Sinn Féin will lead a major campaign, north and south, opposing ratification of the proposed EU Constitution. Our opposition is positive, progressive and forward thinking. We are asking you to join us in this important campaign.

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