We won’t be led by the nose

WELL done to farmers for speaking up in recent weeks and making their concerns known ahead of next week’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

They have shown they won’t willingly be led by the nose into unknown territory.

They have understandable worries, and had a lengthy wait for answers.

But they stuck to their guns, and matched the politicians at their own game.

It was politicians in the other 26 member states who undemocratically ducked the Lisbon referendum option, even though much of its text has already been largely rejected by the people of France and Holland by wide margins.

This political mess leaves three million Irish voters to carry a heavy burden of decision making which will have consequences for nearly 500 million Europeans.

We are faced with giving our verdict on an impenetrable and unexciting treaty text, and it doesn’t help that much of the guidance from political leaders consists of veiled threats, such as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s warning that Ireland and Europe will “pay a price” for a no vote. That statement only showed how far removed he is from ordinary citizens in his powerful position at the top of the EU bureaucracy.

Thankfully, Taoiseach Brian Cowen has seen fit to do some plain talking with IFA and ICMSA, enough to convince them to join the “Yes to Lisbon” side.

Farmers made it easy for the Government by seeking assurance on just one issue — the world trade talks in which EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson seeks to open new borders for EU goods and services, while admitting that such an agreement would hit EU farmers hard.

Undoubtedly, such a trade agreement would cost many Irish farmers their livelihoods. Which is why every farmer organisation here has asked the Government to commit itself to a veto if a world trade deal is bad for Irish farmers.

It’s immaterial to farmers if, as the Taoiseach insisted earlier, Lisbon and the WTO must be kept separate.

That kind of rebuff left farmers in the dark about the Government’s thinking on a world trade deal — which is quite likely to be agreed sometime in the coming decade.

Such a deal might be attractive to much of our industrial and services sectors, but hugely threatening to our farmers.

Until this week’s breakthrough, farmers — like everyone else — know little about the treaty they are being asked to vote on, but were also in the dark about the long-term future of food production within the EU, and thus about their future livelihoods.

That was a very bad omen, ahead of a referendum in which the “don’t knows” may well decide the outcome.

It could be a repeat of the Treaty of Nice in 2001, when almost one in two of those who voted down that treaty said they felt they had not been given enough information.

History may be repeating itself, with many of the Irish electorate telling pollsters they do not know enough about what the Lisbon Treaty contains.

It was precisely this lack of information which led to the rejection of the Treaty of Nice.

All that farmers needed from the Taoiseach this week — and we may never get the full details — was a broad description of how the Irish Government would evaluate a world trade deal — if one is ever agreed sometime in the future.

The Taoiseach probably also told farmers that the passing of the Farm Bill in the US has effectively left world trade talks dead in the water.

Nor would the Taoiseach have to go out on a limb to state that the US presidential election next November, and the arrival of a new set of EU Commissioners in 2009, will end talk of a world trade deal for years.

Straight talking may have been enough to let nervous farmers know that if the Lisbon Treaty is passed, Ireland will continue to use its standing as a valued member of the EU-27 for the good of our farmers and rural dwellers.

It would be a shame if that standing is devalued for nothing — because that is what the world trade talks are on course to deliver.


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