Forum on Europe

Dublin, 17/02/2005

Getting to know the new EU constitution

- Pleasure to meet the Irish Forum on Europe which has done so much to set a more calm, balanced tone in the Irish debates on Europe since the first Nice referendum was lost.
- You have your admirers on the other side of the Irish Sea where European debates are anything but calm and balanced.

- The ETUC was the first major organisation to come out in support of the new constitution, and to give a lead to the trade unions of Europe and others. Not for us a ‘wait and see' approach.

- Why, because we know that the Constitution will be attacked from right and left.

- From the right by narrow minded nationalists dedicated to their nation state above all others. About 20% of the voters in most Western European countries fit into this category. Someone once said that nationalism was based on two pillars - misunderstanding of your history and hatred of your neighbours - and this description fits a range of parties round Europe at the moment who see their chance to vote down the constitution and put the whole EU adventure into crisis.

- From the left too, there is a growing tide of opposition, much encouraged by the recent decision in the CGT in France to overturn its leader's preferred stance to remain neutral and to adopt a position of opposition.

- Their fear is that Europe is going in a too liberal direction, that it is being Americanised and that welfare states, public services and trade union strength are at increasing risk.

- This has been fuelled by some careless politics, notably the so-called Bolkestein directive which in seeking to open up a free market in services has given the wide impression that services located in the country of origin with the lowest standards will undermine and undercut the rest - “social dumping” in the Eurojargon.

- I am relieved that this is in the hands of the much less Calvinist figure of Charlie McCreevy who is a more subtle operator than his Dutch predecessor.

- But the damage has been done - and it was reinforced by some unwise presentation by President Barroso of the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy when he apparently referred to social policy being in the “back seat” of Europe. That's probably not true but the message of liberalisation, getting more competitive, too expensive welfare states, “work till you drop” is a rash one for the Commission to embrace at a time when 10 referendums are to be held on the new constitution.

- So in some countries - France and the UK for sure, and perhaps the Netherlands and Poland too, perhaps Ireland after the Nice experience, it will be a hard fought battle to win.

- Yet win we must. Why?

- Firstly if we do not win it, then Europe will be in a constitutional crisis - a crisis that could take years to resolve. If France rejects it, Europe will have come to a dead stop. If the UK rejects it, it should in honour probably gracefully withdraw, as psychologically, it would have gone beyond being a semi-detached member of the EU. And given that the UK probably had the major victories in drafting the constitution, a British ‘no' vote would be desperately difficult to justify to the other 24 countries.

- In truth, the new constitution is a compromise

- First between the federalists and the nation state camps. The federalists have to make do with the name and concept of a constitution rather than any significant advance for federalism and integration.

- Second between democracy at the European level and at the national level with more power for the European Parliament but a greater say for national Parliaments.

- Between economic and social factors.

- We are pleased that there are commitments to the principles of full employment and social dialogue in Part I and especially pleased by the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as Part II. On this last point, we scored one over the UK Government who tried to stop its incorporation but who later adopted the tactic of limiting the Charter to EU laws only and not, for example, to the Thatcher/Tebbit strict anti strike laws. They succeeded with this latter tactic but there are many legal experts who are sceptical that the Charter can be limited in this way.

- The cost of their success on this last point is an unwillingness on the part of the TUC to join, at least yet, in the campaign for a “yes” vote in Britain.

- We would have liked more qualified majority voting on social matters but let there be no doubt about it, the new constitution is a more workable framework for the EU than the existing mish-mash of treaties. It will make it easier to work a community of 25 - and soon more - nations. It will be more efficient, for example, on foreign policy, on the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, and on voting rights.

- So I hope that the Forum debate will lead to a cool, rational debate in Ireland with a positive result in the referendum. The Irish Government was a very capable midwife of the deal and was widely admired for its skill and diplomacy in securing the agreement of 25 countries.

- Ireland showed the way to agreement.

- Let's hope that Ireland shows the way to a massive “yes” vote.