Irish Bishops´ Statement on Treaty of Nice

«On Balance, There Seems to Be a Stronger Case» for It

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MAYNOOTH, Ireland, MAY 31, 2001 ( Here is the text of the Irish Bishops´ Conference statement on the Treaty of Nice and the upcoming referendum June 7.

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Statement by the Standing Committee of the Irish Episcopal Conference on the Treaty of Nice, 31 May 2001.

On 7 June the voters of the Republic of Ireland will be asked to ratify the Treaty of Nice by way of referendum. The general purpose of this Treaty is to facilitate the enlargement of the European Union. Specifically, it addresses unfinished business of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997).


Since the Treaty of Amsterdam the implications of a greatly enlarged union are slowly becoming more clear. More people, for example, are now asking the key questions. Do we really have to join this vast gathering made up of such diverse cultures? In doing so, can we realistically expect to retain our local and regional cultural and religious values? Is it possible to put a recognisable human face on institutions that are already complex but will inevitably become more so? How can we best use our relatively slim resources to make a positive contribution to this huge process that is already under way? What is our role in future peace-keeping operations?

The current debate on the Treaty of Nice is as much about these general issues as about the more specific questions raised by the Treaty itself. The most significant practical proposal in the Treaty is the extension of a system of majority-weighted voting in the Council of Ministers as distinct from decision-making by unanimous consent. Some people are afraid that this could marginalise smaller member-states and lead to a two-tier Europe of powerful and less powerful nations. Others point to the severe reduction of influence Ireland will enjoy in a larger union due to the redistribution of powers. On the other hand, a revision of the institutions is clearly necessary to enable an enlarged EU to do its business.

While the Irish Bishops are aware that we as a people are gradually getting more familiar with the European process, they are not at all convinced that our response is adequate. It is broadly accepted that Europe has treated us well materially and that it will soon be our turn to help others as we have been helped ourselves. We need a greater awareness that Europe means more than the exchange of merchandise. Our involvement in the EU has enabled us to be more outward-looking towards Europe, to pick up again a vibrant tradition that was launched by the monks of the early Christian centuries. As a people, we are learning to appreciate the cultural heritage and national identity of our fellow-Europeans as they are learning about ours. This is a vital message for our people in considering the challenge of enlargement. The original inspiration of the Common Market was not to create a new post-colonial melting pot but rather to enable people to come together as equals and to participate in a common project of realising the goals of peace, stability, rule of law and solidarity. The time has come for our people to draw upon our own inheritance of cultural and spiritual values as a rich source of human dignity and self-esteem. In doing so, we will have much to offer the new candidate member-states of the EU.

The principle of subsidiarity (decision-making as near as possible to the people affected) needs to be more clearly understood in Ireland. In EU terms it is the policy of encouraging local and regional initiative and of allowing maximum flexibility to accommodate creative and constructive differences and diversity. The common rules are designed to maintain open government and to ensure a level playing field for competitive business and the generation of wealth linked to social solidarity. Like all rules they are open to abuse and often seen as intrusive. But it is simply a matter of fact that the underlying principle has achieved a fair measure of support both inside and outside the EU. One thinks, for example, of the programmes that support the peace process in Northern Ireland and which have generated several valuable initiatives at local level.

Assessing the cost of enlargement is the most difficult exercise confronting the voter in this referendum. The issue is about much more than the redistribution of capital at our expense. It is about a significant reduction in national sovereignty, a reduction we will share with all our present fellow-member states. The different mode of decision-making, replacing debates of the Oireachtas by ministerial negotiation at the Council of Ministers, makes for less accountability and less communication with the general public unless new structures are found and put in place by the Oireachtas. To hold our ground in a larger union, there needs to be more vigilance in anticipating areas of conflicting interests, both through informed analysis and public discussion.

Many who approve of enlargement in principle find the price too high to pay. Critics of the Treaty argue that the changes in it make too many concessions and could have done with more discussion and refinement. On the other hand, it must be said that they were agreed by our elected representatives after long and difficult negotiations and that they were regarded as barely sufficient for enlargement by many of the negotiators themselves.


The section of the Treaty of Nice that has attracted most attention in Ireland concerns common security and defence policy. Article 17 (TEU amended by Nice) begins as follows: «The common foreign and security policy shall include all questions relating to the security of the Union, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy, which might lead to a common defence, should the European Council so decide. It shall in that case recommend to the Member States the adoption of such a decision in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements».

Much of the uncertainty here centres on the definition of a common defence policy, more particularly on what is meant precisely by peace-keeping and peace-making. It has been argued that the commitment to a common security policy already agreed at Maastricht and Amsterdam is gradually moving us into a NATO-style involvement and away from our traditional neutrality. While Nice adds nothing radically new to these two treaties, it encourages the concept of common security by setting up a permanent committee to monitor policy in this area. On the other hand, it must be clearly understood that the right to stand aside and to be critical of any kind of intervention in matters of security and defence is explicitly enshrined in the Treaty. This means in practice that each and every case of intervention would have to be approved by the Oireachtas in the same way that participation in UN peacekeeping is currently organised. Moreover, Ireland will not participate in any action that is not mandated by the UN.

The prior need arises to query the use of any kind of military activity on the part of the EU. Recent experience is relevant here. The consistent paralysis of the EU in the face of the terrible wars in the Balkans has been fairly universally identified as a serious weakness. Consequent reliance on the UN and NATO seems unsatisfactory and undesirable as a permanent solution to European problems in the post-Cold War era.

The argument that the bigger nations call the shots must also be addressed. The crucial factor here would seem to be the democratic stability of the member states and the consequent force of public opinion. The folly and futility of using force, save in extreme circumstances such as genocide, have been integral to European public opinion since 1945 and have been a strong motive for the built-in equilibrium which the treaties have provided between the large and the small member states. As for nuclear armaments, the context of their use getting the unanimous approval required, either constit
utionally or from public opinion, would appear to be as inconceivable as their use would be utterly immoral. The challenge is to recognise and overcome the temptation to return to the excesses of nationalism that were the undoing of Europe in the past.


This charter was adopted at Nice but is not part of the Treaty. While it is not yet legally binding, it expresses institutional EU thinking in a number of highly significant socio-ethical areas.

At their meeting last October the Council of European Bishops Conferences (CCEE) gave a carefully-balanced assessment of the draft Charter. The Bishops saw the Charter as representing «something positive in itself, for it strengthens the freely undertaken network of inter-relation and cooperation, which assures and promotes the development of peace, justice and solidarity on our continent. Human rights are among the most valuable elements of the religious, moral, cultural and civil tradition of Europe.» In particular, according to the Bishops, the Charter acknowledges the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and respect for national identity.

At the same time the Bishops felt obliged to point out areas where the Charter is manifestly incomplete. For example, the prohibition of the cloning of human life extends only to reproductive as distinct from therapeutic cloning. In addition, they considered that the contribution of religions, in particular of Christianity, in promoting the dignity of the human person and the rights accruing from that dignity could have found a more robust acknowledgement, particularly in the preamble.


The Catholic Church offers a unique contribution to the European debate. Being universal it can claim to represent not only the Church in Europe but the Church in the outside world as well. The Church acknowledges the important role the EU has played in creating peace and prosperity in western Europe. Because of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity on which it is constructed, the EU is not seen as a threat to the world at large but rather an admirable example of a well-directed search for unity and peace in an increasingly interdependent world.

The search for unity and peace is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. It gives a mission to all who would make our broken world a better place. It is clarified by ongoing and intensive reflection. Our mandate from the Lord is to reach out to all the «scattered children of God» (John 11:52) and to receive from him «a peace the world cannot give» (John 14:27).


The Treaty of Nice is an important step on the road towards shaping Europe. In addition to completing the business of Amsterdam, it sets out the route for the next revision of the Treaty in 2004. A lively public debate on the subject will serve to sharpen our sense of responsibility as Irish and European citizens. It should also lead to a maximum turnout of voters on 7 June.

These comments are intended to encourage people to vote. They are not intended to express an unqualified preference as to how votes should be cast one way or the other. They are also an appeal to politicians, educationists, journalists and other opinion-makers to develop and promote a culture of informed debate and discussion of European issues in our media and public institutions. In making up their minds on the Treaty of Nice, people may wish to take into account what the Bishops think. Arguments for and against have to be considered, but in the end a decision has to be made. On balance there seems to be a stronger case for the Treaty than against. To vote against Nice would be to change the direction of positive involvement in Europe we have been going for more than twenty five years, an involvement that has been to our benefit.

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