Irish Times, Saturday, September 23,
10 years too late to start
our debate about EU
By Breda O'Brien
Prompted by Síle de Valera's minor outburst in Boston,
our Taoiseach has generously given us all permission to debate
about the European Union and its
This would be wonderful, except it comes about 10 years too
late. Mr Ahern, after all, is now the leader of the party which
ensured all anyone remembers about Maastricht is whether we were
going to get £6 billion or £8 billion from it. So
when bewildered people asked in later years why we did not have
a referendum on the euro, they were
shocked to discover Maastricht was that referendum. Likewise
with the Amsterdam Treaty. When we joined Partnership for Peace
without anything even faintly resembling a debate, we were told
the groundwork had been laid in the Amsterdam Treaty.
Not that any of the major political parties are any better.
With the honourable exception of the Greens and a few dedicated
individuals, all the other parties do their damnedest to stifle
debate on the EU. Fianna Fáil
is pragmatically committed to the EU,
but Fine Gael is fervently wedded to it. After an initial opposition,
now very embarrassing to recall, Labour does its best to outdo
the others in enthusiasm.
Even the mild caveats uttered by Síle de Valera, swaddled
as they were in blankets of praise to the benefits of the EU, earned her the titles of "Little Irelander"
and "isolationist". According to this model, the only
good European is an unquestioning European. Oddly enough, those
who were most vociferous in opposing domination by Holy Mother
Rome are most enthusiastic about Holy Mother Brussels.
When public concerns surface about such issues as common defence
policies or the wisdom of harnessing ourselves to the
euro, a familiar pattern appears. No matter what the issue,
the strategy of successive governments could be summed up thus:
Stage one: "Look, this is just scaremongering by troglodyte
isolationists. It's not going to happen."
Stage Two: "It's just a draft proposal and it's not going
to affect us that much."
Stage Three: "It's too late now. You voted for that three
After years of the mushroom approach to the electorate (keep
them in the dark and shovel manure on them) the Irish public
is now supposed to start debating. Well, maybe we could start
with this one. Why did Ireland meekly acquiesce
earlier this summer to what the European Federation of Journalists
(EFJ) described as a "summertime coup" by Javier Solana?
In September 1999 Mr Solana was made
Secretary-General of the European Union and High Representative
for Common Foreign and Security Policy. In November 1999 he was
appointed Secretary-General of the Western European Union (WEU).
Not to mention being secretary-general of NATO prior to that.
So perhaps we should not be surprised that during the summer
Mr Solana rushed through a new code of access which severely
restricts public access to "all documents classified as
top secret, secret and confidential in the fields of foreign
policy, military and non-military crisis management".
Sounds innocuous enough. After all, every government protects
sensitive security information. Except
Mr Jacob Soderman, the EU ombudsman, has pointed out that the
existing code of access more than adequately protected military
There are several sinister aspects to
the new code of access. First, that phrase, "nonmilitary
crisis management". This refers to civilian aspects of crisis
management, such as police and judicial co-operation. This would
exclude, for example, access to all documentation on the new
rapid-reaction EU force. Not just regarding operational matters,
but in regard to policy-making. Yes, that same rapid-reaction
force our Government is so proud to commit resources to will
now be screened from public scrutiny.
The new code also allows non-EU organisations
to veto access to documents if the documents have been drawn
up in conjunction with them. Thus, NATO or the US could veto
a European citizen's access to EU documents.
THE second sinister aspect was how Mr
Solana achieved his ends. The proposal was shaped in secret by
NATO and Mr Solana, and pushed through in July when the institutions
in Brussels are half-empty, the European Parliament is in recess
and most of the press corps are also taking holidays. It was
passed by a majority vote by the Brussels-based permanent representatives
of the 15 EU member-states (COREPER), which meant it could not
be debated by the European Parliament, and so passed automatically
into law on August 23rd.
This new code of access is in flagrant
breach of Article 225 of the Amsterdam Treaty which enshrines
public right of access to EU documents. This importing of NATO's
near-paranoid level of secrecy into the EU by the back door should
at least give us some pause for thought. But apparently it gave
the Irish representatives on COREPER no such worries. In fact,
the only dissenting voices were Denmark, Finland, Sweden and
the Netherlands. As a result, an extraordinary situation exists
where committees of the European Parliament have recommended
taking the Council to court if this decision is not reversed.
How are we supposed to take an invitation to debate seriously
when something like the Solana proposal can be pushed through
and most people in Ireland will never even hear about it? And
those who raise questions will be accused of paranoia? The British
civil liberties bulletin, Statewatch (www.statewatch.org/news),
has been to the fore in highlighting this
When the editor, Tony Bunyan, asked
for details of the Solana plan back in July, he was given a response
which would be hilarious if it was not so serious. He was refused
information by a senior EU official on the grounds that such
information "could fuel public discussion on the subject".
That would be truly terrible all right,
fuelling public discussion on access to information on the EU's
increasing militarisation. Actually, now that I think about it,
the attitude of most of the major Irish political parties to
EU militarisation is a variant on the stages I outlined
Stage one and two are still the same: that is, "It's
not going to happen" followed by "It's just a draft
proposal and it won't affect us much." But Stage Two (b)
runs in tandem: "It is happening, it's a damn fine thing
and we should be proud to be part of it."
Anyone who queries any aspect of the
EU is accused of being an isolationist, although unlike the UK,
there are almost no isolationists in Ireland. But more and more
people are worried about the increasing centralisation of power
and the culture of secrecy in the EU.
As for enlargement, I for one favour
it, but I am not particularly proud of Irish politicians and
trade unionists who have been persuading poorer countries to
join by telling them, "You, too, can have a Tiger like mine."
The Treaty of Nice looms. The fact that
it is billed as the "leftovers of Amsterdam" should
alert us to its importance. Oh, wouldn't it be lovely
to terrify Mr Ahern by taking seriously his permission to debate?