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The Nice Treaty Referendum

On June 7 the people of Ireland will have to opportunity to pass judgement on the Treaty of Nice through a referendum.  The decision they make, whether to accept or reject it, will have huge political consequences for this country and Europe as a whole.  For the provisions of the Nice Treaty mark a significant shift in the development of European Union institutions, and the role Ireland plays within them.

What is the Nice Treaty?

The Treaty of Nice is the product of the Nice Summit of December 2000, when representatives of the EU's 15 member sates came together to chart a course for its future development.  It's provisions lay the basis for the development of the European Union in two main areas - the creation of European military capacity, and enlargement.

The Rapid Reaction Force

At the summit in Nice, the member states agreed to move towards a common European foreign and defence policy.  As an initial step they agreed to create a EU Rapid Reaction Force.  Comprising 60,000 troops, or which Ireland has pledged 850,  this force will have the capacity to operate up to 4000 km from Brussels, in Africa, the Middle East and areas close to Russia.

Under the previous Treaty of Amsterdam, the EU created a Political Committee to monitor the foreign policy areas, such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, in it had an interest.  In the Treaty of Nice, the name of the Political Committee is  name changed to 'a Political and Security Committee'.   Along with a new name, the Committee also takes on significant new military tasks.  Acting under the authority of the Council of Ministers, it is to exercise 'political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations.'  The Council may authorise the Committee 'for the purpose and for the duration of a crisis management operation,   . . .   to take the relevant decisions concerning the political control and strategic direction of the operation'.  This Committee will have the power to direct European military intervention during a crisis.  In effect, the new Political and Security Committee can wage war.  Of course this is not stated so bluntly in the Treaty.  The word used is 'peacemaking', a euphemism for the enforcement of a military solution.  As the former Fine Gael leader John Bruton admitted in the Dail in October 1999, "Peacemaking means imposing, by the use of force, peaceful conditions under terms laid down by the peacemaker.  It is very difficult to distinguish that from war making."

The EU will be also closely linked to NATO.  According to the NATO General Secretary, the indivisibility of the transatlantic link . . . will be carved in stone.  By 2005, NATP and the EU will  enjoy a close and confident relationship at all levels."  One of the annexes to the Nice Treaty specifies that NATO Secretary General should attend EU Ministerial meetings and that there should be regular meetings between the EU and NATO military committee and staffs. Through its participation in the Rapid Reaction Force, Ireland is effectively locked into a military alliance.  The claim by the Irish government that the neutrality policy is still in place, and that it can choose when to participate in European military operations is a nonsense.   Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of the Council of the EU, spelt out clearly the consequences of the new European defence policy, when it stated that: "Neutrality is a concept of the past." The Rapid Reaction Force is merely the first step towards a European army.  Like all armies, its role which will be to asset the power abroad and defend the existing internal order.


The second major element of the Nice Treaty is enlargement.  It envisages up to 12 new members going the European Union in the future.  This proposed enlargement is used as justification for the strengthening of European institutions.  The Treaty of Nice adds 34 new areas for majority voting to the previous situation of 108 in the Amsterdam Treaty.  Even before Nice, 80% of European legislation was passed by majority decision.  National parliaments of member states will lose even more of their legislative powers to EU civil servants and ministers, and the power of states to exercise a veto will be further diluted.

The Nice Trey heralds a major shift in power to the large European states.  Under its provisions, the big four states - Germany, France, Italy and the UK - will treble their votes to 30 each, and will have the ability to outvote all other EU members.  The extension of 'qualified majority' voting also boosts the power of the big states.  As a vote on the Council of Ministers has to represent 62% of the EU population before it is valid, it will only take three of them to block a proposal from all the other members.  The percentage of seats in the European Parliament allocated to the large states is also increased.

The reality of the Treaty of Nice is that it is a treaty of deepening rather than widening.  At its core is increasing integration, and a strengthening of existing European institutions.  For an expansion of the EU to 27 members is highly unlikely.  Only the richest sates in Eastern Europe, such as Slovenia and the Czech Republic, are likely to be admitted.  If other Eastern European states are admitted it will be on a second-class basis.  They will be used as a source of cheap labour, while the freedom of their citizens to move freely through the union will be highly restricted.  The Fortress Europe policy towards immigration will continue.  Like previous treaties, Nice fails to set a date a for the admission of new members from the East.

The integrationist thrust of the Nice summit was made clear in its declaration on the future of the EU, which looked forward to creation of a new fundamental treaty or constitution in the year 2004.  An indication of the form such a constitution would take was revealed earlier this year by the German government, when it put forward its proposals for what amounted to European government, supported by a European legislative body.

The Treaty of Nice is being presented as a treaty of enlargement.  Yet it will be replaced by a completely new treaty - or constitution - before any enlargement takes place.  What the Nice Treaty really represents, just like the Masstricht and Amsterdam treaties before it, is more union and less democracy.

Neo-liberal agenda

From its inception, the EU has been about expanding the power of  capitalism on both a world and European stage.  One of the major driving forces behind it has been the European Round Table of Industrialists(ERT), which represents 47 European based multi-nationals.  It composed the first draft enlargement plans. The ERT also drew up the first plans for the Single European Market, the Maastricht Treaty and Monetary Union. The thrust of these policies was to create an increasingly deregulated economy.  This involves the destruction of national trade barriers, the privatisation of public services, and loss of national control over currency and interest rate policy.

Multinational companies want a uniformity of laws across the EU.  This protests them from competition, and also makes it easier to formulate plans for investment, production, sales etc.  Of course such laws over ride the will of the people in the member states.  The way EU institutions are constructed, it is impossible to reach a decision that is against the interests of multinational companies.

The Nice Treaty takes this neo-liberal agenda even further. Article 133 calls for the 'achievement of uniformity in measures of liberalisation." It also gives increased powers to the EU to represent the member states externally, especially in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  An EU official will represent the member states in talks with the US over the General Agreement on Tariffs and Services (GATS). The aim of these talks will be further deregulation of all public services.  An unelected GATS disputes panel has been established to get rid of nay regulation which resists privatisation if they judge it 'more burdensome than necessary'.  One of the main reasons enlargement was on the Nice Summit agenda is because multinational companies see Eastern and Central Europe as a cheap, well-educated workforce and a gigantic market for their sales

The Nice Treaty and Ireland

In Ireland the established political parties have closed ranks to support the Nice Treaty.  Even though the opposition Fine Gael and Labour Party made criticism of the Treaty over the diminution of Irish voting strength, and the likely loss of commissioner, they still endorsed its general thrust.  This unanimity was reflected in the Dail debate on the Treaty which, despite its importune for national sovereignty, only lasted 70 minutes.  Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins, was suspended from the Dail when he protested at not being allowed to speak.

The Nice Treaty has been endorsed by the Irish employers'organisation, IBEC.  It stated that enlargement was a win-win situation, and that Irish businesses couldn't wait to exploit the opportunities in candidate states.  The Treaty is also endorsed by ICTU on the basis that it contains a Charter of Fundamental Rights.  However, this Charter has no legal status, it is merely aspirational.  Indeed, it was the Irish government along with the British who were most insistent that it should have no legal force.  Even if it did, the rights contained in the Charter fall well short those that currently exist in some European states.  It does not include the right to work, to decent accommodation, to a state pension, or the right to a member of a trade union and the right to strike. ICTU is also supporting the creation of the Rapid Reaction force despite the fact that neutrality is enshrined in its constitution.  Ireland's largest trade union SIPTU has refused to ballot its members on the Nice Treaty despite its formal commitment to neutrality.  From the tenor of the debate over Nice it is clear that the established political parties, Irish business and the Trade Union bureaucracy are determined to push through the Treaty, and have little regard for democracy or constitutional niceties.  Their arrogance is reflected in the fact that many of the decisions over Nice have already been taken.  Ireland has already pledged 850 troops to the Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), and has officials on the European Political and Security Committee.

Opposition to the Nice Treaty comes from a number of sources.  The first is thoroughly reactionary, and is associated with groups such as the  'No to Nice' which claims that the European Union is threatening to introduction "abortion on demand" into Ireland.  The second is nationalist, is mainly based on Sinn Fein, and focuses on the ceding of national sovereignty.   And the third is a "soft left" position which defends Irish neutrality on the basis of anti-militarism.  It is identified with the Green Party and the Socialist Party, and is encompassed by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA).

While the defence of national sovereignty and neutrality are causes that socialists would be generally sympathetic to, they are too narrow to provide an alternative to the current European project. The weakness of a pro-neutrality position is demonstrated clearly in the claim by the PANA campaign that it would endorse the Nice Treaty if Ireland was exempted from its military aspects.  It assumes that neutrality is the only reason to oppose the Treaty, whereas it is one of many.  The hollowness of the nationalist argument of Sinn Fein is shown up by that party's own practice.  For at the same as opposing Nice, Sinn Fein is supporting the Belfast Agreement, which legitimises British political rule in the North of Ireland and the presence of its military there.  Throughout the course of the peace process Sinn Fein has encouraged the intervention and involvement of imperialist powers, including the European Union, to play a role in determining Ireland's future.  Indeed, pressure for the abandonment of neutrality comes as much form the dynamics of the peace process, and Britain's need for an all-Ireland security policy, as from Brussels.  Also, in the Stormont Executive, Sinn Fein ministers Martin McGuinness and Barbara De Brun have been enthusiastically implementing the neo-liberal policies advocated by the EU by handing over the running of schools and hospitals to private companies.  Sinn Fein's opposition to the European Union is no more than rhetorical.

Credible opposition to the Nice Treaty can only be established through principled and consistent positions on the democratic and economic questions.  There is an urgent need to broaden the debate on Europe and the basis of opposition to Nice.  Although neutrality will probably be the main blank of the no-campaign, its capacity to move the debate to the left is quite limited.  It is a rather nebulous concept that has been used to give a gloss to right wing policies. In practice, the Irish ruling class has used neutrality to effectively back imperialist aggression.  Also, as socialists, we are not neutral.  We support the oppressed against their oppressors, the working class against the capitalist class, and those who fight for national liberation against imperialism.  Given the European Union is one of the major bastions of imperialism and capitalism, opposition to it needs to encompass a whole range of issues.

Despite almost unanimous backing from the established political parties, business, and the trade union bureaucracy, support for the European Union has been falling. In every referendum on European Treaties, the yes vote has fallen.  In the last referendum 38 per cent voted no to the Amsterdam Treaty.  There is a real possibility that the Nice Treaty could be rejected.  Such an outcome would represent a major blow to the Irish ruling class and the established political parties.  Moreover, because the Nice Treaty must be endorsed by all member states, a rejection in Ireland would throw a spanner into the workings of the whole European Union.  It could encourage the opposition in other countries, and open up the debate over how the continent should move forward.   The stakes could not be higher.  This why socialists must make their voices heard during the referendum.  We must oppose the Nice Treaty on the basis of democracy and defence of the working class, and put forward a alternative vision of Europe to the rich man's club that is currently on offer.










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