The EU is governed by a set of treaties, dating back to the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which established the union’s precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community.
The treaties are agreements among the member states on how the union should be run and what it should do. They have been revised several times to meet changes in the union.
The Lisbon Treaty contains changes designed to cope with the consequences of the enlargement from 15 to 27 members.
The key goal is to streamline the way in which the EU is run, making it more efficient and effective. It changes the way the union handles some policies, such as justice and security issues.
It is also an attempt to make the union more democratic and bring it closer to its citizens.
Every member state must agree to the treaty, otherwise it fails to become law as happened to the European Constitution when France and the Netherlands voted against it in 2005.
But while the constitution fell, it has essentially been repackaged and there is little difference between it and the Lisbon Treaty.
Ireland is the only country where people are voting on it. In other member states, the treaty is being approved in parliament.
While dealing with dull matters like voting and institutions the Lisbon Treaty raises particular issues for Irish voters.
The following are among the key issues on which the treaty debate will centre:
* Tax and international agreements: The big issue here is Ireland’s 12.5% corporation tax rate, which has attracted many multinational companies to establish bases here, and is a key component of our economic success. Elements of the No campaign argue that Ireland could lose its right to set its own corporation tax rate under the Lisbon Treaty. This is not the case. Tax is and will continue to be a matter for each state.
Whether the treaty is passed or not, some member states, such as France, want the union to introduce a common consolidated corporate tax base, which in theory could lead to the same rate being applied across the union. Ireland can veto this but there is nothing to stop a number of countries going ahead with the idea on their own.
The treaty says that if a country believes an agreement — such as the World Trade Organisation — is against their national interest, they can veto it.
* Neutrality and defence: Lisbon does not change the scope of the EU’s existing Common Foreign or Security Policy, or transfer any more powers to the union. Neither does it affect any of the member states’ foreign and defence policies. This is stated throughout the treaty and Ireland’s neutrality will remain unaffected.
Ireland and all other member states retain their veto on any decisions with military or defence implications, including police missions. All decisions on whether to contribute military or civilian personnel and assets in support of a mission will continue to be decided on a case-by-case basis by each member state.
The treaty for the first time includes a clause that says if one country is attacked, the other members will assist them in line with the UN charter. This covers all six EU countries that are neutral or not members of NATO.
For the first time, there will be a solidarity clause where member states agree to offer help to fellow members suffering a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
* Sovereignty and freedom: Ireland and the other member countries remain sovereign states able to elect their own parliaments, raise their own taxes and pass their own laws.
The EU operates only on the basis of the power member states agree to transfer to it. This power has grown steadily over the years as countries feel they can benefit from closer cooperation under the EU umbrella. Each change has been agreed in a new treaty.
The treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam saw the evolution of the union into a political as well as economic entity. Lisbon develops this by making it easier to get agreement among the 27 member states by moving more policy areas from a veto system (each member state having the right to say no and thereby veto a proposal) to a system of “qualified majority voting” (QMV). A majority here would necessitate both 65% of the EU’s population and 55% of member states.
* Democracy, transparency and the veto: The European Parliament currently has joint say, known as co-decision, with the member states in about 75% of legislation, and this will now be extended to 95%.
The 44 new areas where the parliament will have joint say will be made up of 23 areas where the veto is abolished and 21 new areas.
The veto will remain for tax, defence, foreign affairs and some aspects of external trade agreements.
Civil servants representing their governments and based in Brussels will continue to negotiate each piece of legislation along policy lines decided by their government. But under Lisbon, all proposed legislation must also go in advance to each national parliament — in Ireland’s case the Dáil and Seanad. TDs and senators can raise objections if they believe the proposed action can be done better at national or local level rather than EU-wide.
If a third of national parliaments agree, the commission must reconsider and possibly re-draft the legislation. If half of national parliaments and a majority of the Council of Ministers and European Parliament agree, the legislation will be rejected.
A petition from a million citizens can also request new or changed legislation from the commission.
* Abortion: Neither the Lisbon Treaty nor the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which will come into effect if the treaty is passed, affects Irish law on abortion. The protocol on the right to life of the unborn that the Government had included in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty remains part of the Lisbon Treaty. It says: “Nothing in the Treaty on European Union, or in the treaties establishing the European Communities, or in the treaties or Acts modifying or supplementing these treaties, shall affect the application in Ireland of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution of Ireland” (which effectively prohibits abortion).
* The Charter of Fundamental Rights: The union has been built on a single market, but the Lisbon Treaty adds and expands on social objectives for citizens, insisting that EU action must take account of social policy goals, such as ensuring a high level of employment, education and training, and adequate social and health protection. Member states continue to keep control over social policies.
The Charter, which was first agreed in 2000, has 54 articles that define fundamental rights and principles relating to dignity, liberty, equality, solidarity, citizenship and justice. The existing European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects civil and political rights, but the Charter goes further to cover workers’ social rights, data protection, bioethics, social exclusion, poverty and the right to good administration.
The treaty gives the Charter a legal base for the first time. It does not apply to domestic laws but to laws that have come from the EU. Citizens can take a case based on their rights to the European Court of Justice.