10 years too late to start our debate about EU

Opinion from The Irish Times

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Irish Times, Saturday, September 23, 2000

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 future direction.

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 years ago."

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 secrets.

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 new code.

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 above.

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?


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