20 January 2005 Edition
Sponsored Feature: Debating the EU Constitution
Much of the politics of the January session of the EU Parliament was taken up with a debate on the proposed EU Constitution. MEPs from the Conservatives, Socialists and Greens argued that the constitution would mark a new point in the development of the Union, although their arguments were contradictory, some argued that it was just a tidying up exercise, while others said it was an enhancement of the federalist project.
What was clear, however, is that these MEPs were determined for the EU to become a partisan player in the forthcoming referenda over the coming months. The debate was surrounded by a series of pro-Constitution activities, organised and funded by the President of the European Parliament, in which alternative points of view were noticeably absent.
In response to this rather biased and partisan approach, Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún called for a real debate on the proposed EU Constitution. Speaking from Strasbourg, de Brún said: "The proposed EU Constitution is one of the most significant social, political, economic and constitutional issues facing Ireland and the other EU member states today. Sinn Féin wants to see a full and frank debate on the EU Constitution in each member state leading up their respective referenda. The European Parliament and Commission have a role to play in this process by providing information to citizens in Member States. Awareness raising of any kind makes a positive contribution to debate so long as the information provided is balanced and impartial.
Bairbre de Brún's comments were echoed by Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald, when she said that "the European Parliament and Commission must not interfere with the democratic process in each member state. Citizens must be entitled to assess the Constitution on an open and fair basis, listen to all sides of the argument, and decide for themselves. Calling for the wholehearted endorsement of the European Constitution and urging member states to achieve ratification by mid-2006 makes the European Parliament as an institution, a partisan player within each referendum. MEPs should not support any such call, and Sinn Féin will therefore vote against this report."
Following the debate, EU Green Party leader Daniel Cohen-Bendit launched a poorly informed attack on Sinn Féin, accusing us of lying to the Irish people about the content of the Constitution. In response, Mary Lou challenged him to come to Ireland and publicly debate the detail of the proposed Constitution, allowing the Irish people to make up their own mind on whose account is more honest.
Sinn Féin is currently discussing the detail of the European Constitution within the party and will formally take our decision at this year's Ard Fheis in early March. The party has already expressed serious concerns with the content of the proposed EU Constitution. Issues of democratic accountability, national sovereignty, neutrality and militarisation, the centralisation of powers within the EU, and the neo-liberal agenda are all key areas of concern. At this stage, it is clear that the EU Constitution is not a charter for an EU of Equals. Sinn Féin said over a year ago that unless significant changes were made along the lines that we recommended to the Irish Government we would be unable to support the proposed constitution, and would once again have to campaign on the NO side in the referenda north and south.
A discussion document entitled Ireland and the EU Constitution will be launched by Sinn Féin in early February and a formal response to the Constitution will be presented to the Ard Fheis for discussion and agreement in March. There is some speculation that The 26-County Government could call a referendum on the issue either in Autumn 2005 or early 2006. Clearly having learned the lessons of Nice 1 and 2, the government and other pro-Constitution parties are not intending on making the same mistake twice, and are expected to mount a vigorous campaign. A referendum in the Six Counties, against the backdrop of strong Tory and Unionist opposition to the Constitution, will be a rather different but equally important affair.
MEP's Diary - Mary Lou McDonald
10-14 January 2005
The Monday of each plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg is spent preparing for the coming week - deciding voting positions, attending meetings and dealing with constituency requests through the Dublin Sinn Féin office.
The first session of the year began at 5pm and I addressed the session on global climate change by stating that it was imperative that governments and big business show strong leadership and make difficult choices concerning our environment.
On Tuesday, both Sinn Féin MEPs voted against a report that called upon the European Parliament to endorse the EU Constitution. We made our decision on the basis that the European Parliament and Commission must not interfere with the democratic process in each member state. Citizens must be entitled to assess the Constitution on an open and fair basis, listen to all sides of the argument, and decide for themselves.
In the evening, both Bairbre de Brún and myself briefed the GUE/NGL group on the latest crisis in the peace process. The briefing provided an opportunity to explain in some detail the story behind the spin of recent days. The reality is that there are those within the British system hostile to the peace process and the Sinn Féin role in driving it forward. We made clear that Sinn Féin would not allow our electoral mandate to be set aside on the basis of unsubstantiated comments from Hugh Orde. Fellow MEPs expressed their concern at recent events and pledged their support for the peace process.
On Wednesday, the President of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, set out the political programme of its European Presidency in the European Parliament. We called upon the Presidency to seize the opportunity to press for a progressive social justice agenda in the next six months, and to promote positive initiatives on socio-economic, political and human rights. It is worth noting that more than 68 million people continue to face poverty and social exclusion within the EU's own borders.
In the evening, I took part in a panel debate on the Vincent Browne show on the EU Constitution and called for a real debate on the issue. I reiterated Sinn Féin's view that we have serious concerns with the content of the proposed EU Constitution. Issues of democratic accountability, national sovereignty, neutrality and militarisation, the centralisation of powers within the EU, and the neo-liberal agenda are all key areas of concern.
On Thursday morning, both Sinn Féin MEPs called upon the European Union to provide greater political and financial aid for the countries affected by December's Tsunami in Southeast Asia. We supported a resolution calling on the European Commission and the Member States to take all the necessary measures to write off the developing countries' bilateral and multilateral external debts rapidly.
Friday marked the end of a long week at the European Parliament, yet just the beginning of a yearlong celebration of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Sinn Féin. The Céad Bliain event took place in the Mansion House, Dublin.
Strasbourg In Brief
Peace Funding Secured
• On Monday 10 January, MEPs overwhelming voted in favour of continuing the Peace Funds programme for another two years. Speaking after a report tabled by UUP MEP Jim Nicholson, Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún said: "A positive signal from the European Union at this stage of the Peace Process would be an important recognition of its support for the efforts of those engaged in the arduous ongoing task of conflict resolution. On a practical level also, PEACE Programme funding is vitally important to promoting national reconciliation, social inclusion and peace building. Of course PEACE funding cannot be allocated on the basis of religious or political affiliation. It must be and can only be allocated on the basis of need."
Banks and Unionists
• During the same debate, Unionist MEPs attached Sinn Féin and accused the party of being directly involved in the December Northern Bank Robbery in Belfast. The outburst was angrily criticised by MEPs from a number of countries as being unparliamentary and groundless.
• Speaking from Strasbourg, Sinn Féin MEP for Dublin Mary Lou McDonald welcomed the announcement that troops from the 26 Counties will not be participating in EU battle groups for the foreseeable future. McDonald said that "Sinn Féin had vehemently opposed the formation of EU battle groups, which served the purpose of Europe's military and economic elites and sidelined the United Nations in leading peacekeeping duties".
The Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea made the announcement, citing legal and constitutional difficulties. It is understood that the battle groups would have been expected to go into action on notice of between five and ten days.
The state requires that a UN Security Council Resolution is required before it can take part in overseas military missions, and UN resolutions normally take longer to be decided upon.
Developing World Debt
• Sinn Féin MEPs Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún voted in favour of a European Parliament resolution calling for the cancellation of developing world debt. The motion was proposed by the GUE/NGL group.
"The continued burden of servicing debt is actively preventing many countries from countering the devastating impact of poverty, disease, post-conflict reconstruction and development of much needed infrastructure, economic development and public service provision," said McDonald. "To date, the response of the major powers within the international community has been wholly inadequate. In 2003, low-income countries paid $39 billion in servicing their debt. In the same year, the same countries received only $27 billion in aid. Such a situation is ludicrous. Sinn Féin has long called for the cancellation of developing world debt. Today we are calling on the European Commission and the Member States to pursue an active and coordinated policy, both within multilateral institutions and on a bilateral basis, for the full cancellation of the foreign debt of all developing countries."
Ahern must Honour UN Aid Target
• During the same debate Bairbre de Brún called on Bertie Ahern to honour commitments made to meet the UN target for aid to developing countries. De Brún said: "Sinn Féin believes that the target of 0.7% of GNP for development aid must be met as soon as possible in order to attain the Millennium Development Goals. The Irish Government must reconsider its position on this matter and honour its previous commitment to meet this target."
Who's who in the GUE/NGL Group
The German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)
In the second is a series of articles, Sinn Féin Director of European Affairs Eoin Ó Broin looks at the politics and political parties of the GUE/NGL group. This week, Eoin examines the German Party of Democratic Socialism.
The largest political party in the European United Left/Nordic Green Left in terms of votes and MEPs is the German Party of Democratic Socialism. With seven MEPs, they occupy a political position quite distinct from both the continental communist and Nordic green left parties.
The party has its origins in the old East German Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which ran the eastern bloc country from the end of the Second World War to the end of the 1980s.
Following the collapse of Soviet communism and the Berlin Wall, the SED fragmented, with some sections joining the German Social Democrats. A left-wing element of the old party and a newer reconstructed left came together in February 1990 and formed the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). The old party guard was soon replaced by new generation of leaders, such as the new chairman, Gregor Gysi, and began the process of building a post-Communist democratic socialist project.
The PDS won 11% of the vote in eastern Germany in the 1990 all-Germany election, an outcome that entitled the party to 17 seats in the Bundestag. In the Bundestag, the PDS was the main and most energetic left-wing opposition to the Kohl government of the time. However, despite its strength in the former eastern Germany, its national tally reached only 2.4%.
By the mid-1990s, the PDS had roughly 130,000 members in the east, giving it the largest membership of any party in eastern Germany. The party's strongholds are Saxony, Berlin, and Brandenburg.
In the 1994 national election, the PDS won 4.4% of the vote, an outcome that, as predicted, left the party beneath the 5% hurdle. However, the party won parliamentary representation, thanks to a peculariarity of the German electoral law: the fact that the PDS won four districts outright (all in eastern Berlin) entitled it to 30 seats in the Bundestag.
Since the mid-'90s the PDS has been experiencing a slow but upward electoral curve. In the 2004 EU elections, it won 6% nationally, campaigning on a slogan of 'social justice'. The PDS polled only 1.6% in west Germany, but 25% in east Germany. In elections in the east German state of Thuringia, the PDS overtook the national government party, the SPD, with 26% and 14.5% respectively. The result has given the PDS the largest number of MEPs in its history.
The political profile of the PDS MEPs in Europe can be characterised as one of promoting social and economic justice, a strong commitment to human rights at home and abroad, a commitment to democratic reform in the new eastern European republics such as Ukraine, and an unqualified platform of peace and conflict resolution across the world. They were at the forefront of the German campaign against the war in Iraq. They are also opposed to the proposed EU Constitution on the basis that it will deepen the neo-liberal grip on European economies and further erode welfare provision and social protections for all citizens.
At home, the PDS is involved in grass-roots campaigns for economic justice, exemplified by the "Monday rallies". During the end of August 2004, hundreds of thousands of people took part in demonstrations in up to 200 German cities. The term "Monday rallies" refers to the famous demonstrations of the year 1989, when mass rallies forced the then GDR government to listen to the people's demands for more freedom and democratic rights. The protests are an expression of widespread anger at the Social Democratic-Green government's attempts to dismantle the welfare state.
• This news feature is funded by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)