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10 February 2005 Edition

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What's the new EU Constitution all about?

In the first of a series of articles on the upcoming referenda on the proposed EU Constitution, Sinn Féin's Director of European Affairs Eoin O'Broin looks at the background, the timetable for ratification and the issues involved.

In December 2001, in the Belgian town of Laecken, the leaders of EU member states established a Convention on the Future of Europe. The Convention was asked to examine ways to create 'more democracy, transparency and efficiency' in the EU. Among the various options it proposed was the possibility of 'restoring more power to the Member States'. The Laecken Declaration said there was a need to 'clarify, simplify and adjust the division of competencies between the Union and the Member States'. It acknowledged that citizens of the Member States did not want a 'European superstate'. The declaration also mentioned the possibility of a Constitution for the EU, but only 'in the long run'.

The convention began work in February 2002, chaired by the French Euro-Federalist politician, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Supporters of the convention have argued that after 16 months of work, in an open, democratic and transparent manner, a consensus decision was reached on a draft European Constitution in summer of 2003.

However, members from various countries who attended the convention paint a very different picture. The Irish Green Party argued that "...most of the real negotiations, unfortunately, did take place behind closed doors... The idea of open sessions was also a myth. There were over 1,000 amendments offered but no votes were taken on any of them and most were never even discussed.'"

The representative of United European Left/Nordic Green Left to the Convention Esko Seppanen has stated that: "The Presidium... which did not have representation from all countries, decided what the will of the Convention was, and called it a consensus. As federalists were over-represented in the Convention, consensus meant consensus among them."

Indeed, large parts of the draft Constitution were not even written by the Convention, in particular, the longest and most detailed section, Part III, which deals with the detail of the EU's competencies.

Despite all of this, the draft Constitution was submitted to the Intergovernmental Conference of EU Member State leaders in June 2003.

In July 2003, Sinn Féin published our own analysis of the draft Constitution as it stood at that time. In our document, For an independent Ireland in a Europe of equals, we recognised that the proposed Constitution represented a serious challenge to Irish society. The discussion document also analysed the Constitution and concluded that the Draft Constitution; made fundamental changes in the structures of the EU; gave those structures more power; gave the EU a single legal personality for the first time.

The effect of these fundamental changes was, we argued, to shift the balance yet further from sovereign national parliaments and towards the EU.

In effect, the draft Constitution amounted to the single biggest step so far in the creation of an EU superstate.

In turn, we called on the Irish Government to propose significant and substantial changes to those aspects of the draft Constitution, which were not in the interests of Irish citizens, of other Member States, or indeed of the world.

Unless such changes were made, Sinn Féin at that time made it clear that we would be unable to support the draft Constitution in any referenda, and thus would play a key role in any 'No' campaign.

After discussion and amendment at the Intergovernmental Conference, EU leaders published a draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe in June 2004.

The final outcome of the Intergovernmental Conference of June 2004 was two documents. The draft itself ran into 324 pages and an additional document of Protocols and Declarations ran into an additional 460 pages. It is written in dense, at times contradictory, legal language, and covers an enormous range of political, policy, institutional, procedural and trans-national matters.

The draft Constitution is divided into four sections. Part 1 contains the provisions that define the Union, its objectives, its powers, its decision-making procedures and its institutions. Part 2 is the Charter of Fundamental rights, which was proclaimed at the Nice European Council in 2002. Part 3 deals with the Union's policies and actions and incorporates many of the provisions of existing Treaties. Finally, Part 4 deals with procedures for adopting and reviewing the Constitution.

Of the three substantial sections of the draft Constitution, (Parts 1, 2 & 3) the section dealing with human rights is by far the smallest, both in terms of length and detail. Indeed Part 3, which deals with policy and powers, is 158 pages long - almost half the entire Constitution!

Sinn Féin's European Department has developed a detailed final response to the proposed Constitution, which will be discussed by party activists in the run up to this year's Ard Fheis in March. The outcome of that debate will determine our position and we have already started making preparations for our role in the upcoming referenda campaigns.

2005 and 2006 will see two separate referenda in Ireland on the proposed EU Constitution. While no dates have been set by either the British or Irish governments, pundits are suggesting that Bertie Ahern will call the 26-County vote this autumn and Tony Blair will wait until 2006.

The 26 Counties will be one of ten EU Member States putting the proposed Constitution to the people. Spain will vote later in February. France will vote in June, followed by the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania, Holland, Poland, Portugal and Britain.

Three countries have already ratified the Constitution through their national parliaments: Lithuania, Slovenia and Hungary. While Slovakia and Latvia have yet to decide if they will call referenda, the remainder will deal with the issue at national parliaments. In some countries, such as Sweden, the unwillingness of the governments to accede to referenda has been caused by opinion polls or recent EU-related referenda that have indicated the strong possibility that the populations would reject the proposed Constitution.

While most of these countries, whether they hold referenda or not, are expected to ratify the Constitution, four countries could reject the text and force EU leaders to go back to the drawing board. Possible 'No' votes could occur in France, Ireland, Britain and Denmark. However, there is little doubt that governments in all of these countries will be making a serious and well-resourced effort to ensure the vote they want.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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