What the Lisbon Treaty will or will not do to Irish neutrality

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Donegal Democrat,
by Edward Longwill

Edward Longwill, a security policy analyst at the University of Ulster, explains exactly what the Lisbon Treaty will or will not do to Irish neutrality.

In June 2008, 53% of Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty. The Irish government believes that guarantees it received last December on neutrality, taxation and abortion will ensure a Yes vote on 2 October when the Irish electorate are asked to vote again on an identical Lisbon Treaty.

Of the 27 EU Member States, citizens within the Republic of Ireland have the second highest perception of EU membership (Eurobarometer Poll, spring 2008). If the Irish people are such committed members of the EU, why did they reject Lisbon?
Immediately after the referendum the European Commission authorised a study to examine the paradox. Most of the No voters were younger, less well educated, and working-class who gave a primary reason for opposing Lisbon because they did not understand it. Interestingly 83% of No voters believed the Irish rejection of Lisbon would protect their country’s neutral status (Flash Eurobarometer Poll, July 2008).

A poll conducted on behalf of the Irish government a number of months after the referendum found that 82% of No voters viewed neutrality as either important or very important (Millward Brown IMS Survey, September 2008). The legal framework of neutrality is defined by the Hague Convention 1907 which summarises how a state must behave in order to maintain neutral status. In short, a state cannot use its military to support another state at war or allow the passage of troops or war supplies through its territory which belong to another state at war. However a neutral state can sell another state war material without breaching the rules of neutrality.

In Ireland neutrality is synonymous with sovereignty and independence. In 1916 republican leaders staged an unsuccessful rebellion and publicised their belief that Irishmen should not serve in the British army and protect British interests. On the contrary they viewed the First World War as an opportunity to end British colonialism in Ireland. The British government’s attempt to impose conscription on Ireland in 1918 led to an electoral revolt and a subsequent war of independence. Even today neutrality is regarded by many Irish voters as an expression of anti-imperialism.

During the First World War the United States supplied Britain with war materials. Technically this did not breach neutrality status. However the German navy received orders to attack merchant ships suspected of carrying war material and the sinking of the Lusitania of the coast of Ireland led to US war entry. This event demonstrated that a state at war may not respect the technical rules of neutrality. Legally, neutrality has only military considerations. However, today a significant proportion of Irish people believe in the totality of neutrality – that it must be universally applied to inter-state relations.

Irish entry to the UN in 1955 and the first peacekeeping mission in 1960 to the Congo set a lasting precedent to authorise the use of Irish troops overseas. An Irish contingent of soldiers cannot serve outside of the Republic of Ireland without a UN mandate for the overall operation, Irish government approval and a positive vote in the Irish parliament. This system has become known as the ‘triple-lock’.

The Irish state has never been totally neutral in the non-legal sense of the concept. Favouritism towards the Allies in the Second World War and towards the Western Bloc when it came to voting within the UN General Assembly created a clear distinction between military neutrality and how a state can adopt a contradictory diplomatic policy. Pursing contradictory political and military policies can bring a state into military conflict. In 1980 the Irish government politically and diplomatically criticised the Israeli government. Some analysts claimed that this resulted in pro-Israeli forces assaulting Irish positions causing the deaths of Irish soldiers serving with the UN in Lebanon. The Irish government and public learned that if the state pursues certain foreign policies then other states may not respect Irish military neutrality.

More recently the neutrality debate arose in Irish politics. The French led EUFOR Chad operation (2007-09) saw the Irish military provide the second largest contingent. Although the mission held a UN mandate, and the Irish government claimed the mission would protect refugees, a number of Irish commentators claimed that EUFOR advanced French neo-colonial interests, Francafrique, by supporting a dictator. In the near future the French government’s true agenda will become evident. Only then can Irish analysts attempt to determine if the Irish government knew, or approved, of this agenda.

There is no doubt that the Irish government is deviating from military neutrality. One of the most controversial debates in Irish politics over recent years was the decision permit the US Air Force to land at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Official reports confirmed that US soldiers stopped at Shannon en route to Iraq. More controversial are rumours which claim that some landings contain prisoners on torture-bound ‘rendition flights’. In 2006 the European Parliament passed a resolution criticising several unnamed Member States’ ‘collusion’ with the US by providing civilian or military airports for this purpose (Resolution 1507 (2006), 10.8).

More importantly a retired Irish army officer, Commandant (Major) Edward Horgan, in March 2003 took a case against the Irish government to the High Court over the fact that the US used Shannon for the Iraq war – viewed by Horgan as an illegal war contrary to international law. Although the Irish constitution implies a respect for international law, the judge dismissed Horgan’s argument and found that the government was not bound by ‘statements of principle or guidelines’. Irish neutrality no longer existed because the Irish government accepted that military troops passed through Shannon – in breach of the Hague Convention 1907 (5,2) ‘belligerents are forbidden to move troops or convoys… across the territory of a neutral power’.

Most members of the Irish public are not aware of the significance of this decision and believe that Ireland is still a neutral state. In fact during the last Lisbon campaign, scaremongering arose that the treaty would create an EU army, conscription or even result in Irish soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Most voters do not know that senior Irish officers already serve in the EU Military Staff, responsible for coordinating EU Member State’s military policy under Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Furthermore seven Irish officers serve alongside NATO officers in Afghanistan and Irish government secrecy over their specific role has generated many rumours. However these soldiers are trained in bomb disposal and it is likely they support NATO’s war effort rather than provide humanitarian assistance.
Irish neutrality no longer exists yet many of the ignorant Irish public believed a No vote in Lisbon would protect the state’s ‘neutral’ status. If we accept that Irish neutrality is dead, the question is how the passage of Lisbon will alter the current position. The treaty will end the Irish veto on CFSP initiatives. Article 15(b) will bring CFSP under a Qualified Majority Vote (QMV) in the European Council. Furthermore Article 11 (a) will effectively federalise all areas of ‘common foreign and security policy… all questions relating to the Union's security, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy’ and Article 46 (a) ‘The Union shall have legal personality’ gives the EU federal status at global level.

Most Irish voters are oblivious to all of this. However the No campaign drew voters’ attention to the ‘solidarity clause’, Article 28 (7) of the treaty which states ‘if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression… the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all means in their power’. One of the most important guarantees the Irish government received last December was that this did not constitute a military alliance.

Opponents of the treaty have identified other articles which they believe will deter Irish voters. These include the commitment to improve military capabilities and increase military spending for the European Defence Agency (EDA). Anti-Lisbon campaigners have misleadingly claimed that this will lure Ireland into a pan-European military-industrial complex. On the contrary it is natural for all states to continually modernise and improve their capability and in 2007 Ireland contributed to just over 1% of the EDA’s budget (€283,800 of €20,800,000).

Perhaps the most dramatic claim made by elements of the No campaign is that a conspiracy exists to create an EU super-army. There are no secrets, in fact the EU Institute for Security Studies published a report titled What Ambitions for European Defence in 2020? (2009). This reveals the desire for permanent structures, ‘a formal Council of Defence Ministers’ chaired by the EU ‘Foreign Minister’, ‘a European Security and Defence College… to train all personnel in a common strategic culture… and a European Command to plan and conduct the Union’s military operations’.

Do we need an EU army? If so, should we fear a centrally commanded grand EU army? The authors of the report suggested de-centralising control of the EU military to a ‘European Parliamentary Council for Security and Defence’ which would liaise between EU and national level parliaments. Also the EU will have its own representative at the UN to ‘normally’ but not always develop missions within the UN’s framework.

A federal EU would have a tremendous military capability. If all 27 Member States combined their defence budgets it would total over €200 billion – second only to the US. Would the EU become a global centre of liberty and respect for human rights or an out of control expansionist monster? According to the EDA’s Long Term Vision Report 2020-25 (2006), if current trends continue then by 2025 the EU in its current form will only comprise of 6% of the world’s population.

Centralised defence planning could potentially ensure that the EU acquires the world’s greatest military. The Vision Report explained that presently 50% of collective EU defence spending goes on personnel. The economic burden of the public sector always raises debate yet the re-organisation of national militaries along federal lines would collectively save billions of euros. Currently the collective EU forces have approximately 10,000 battle tanks and 3,000 combat aircraft. Again, re-organisation along federal lines would reduce the quantity of EU defence assets and dramatically increase the future quality of assets.

Unfortunately most Irish voters are unaware of the complex issues associated with Lisbon. An opinion poll taken four weeks before the 2008 referendum placed No voters at only 18% yet the actual result saw 52% of voters saying No. Interestingly a similar poll taken four weeks in advance of the upcoming 2 October referendum has the No vote at 29% (Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll, 3 September). Therefore the No vote has grown since the first referendum and it looks likely that the Irish electorate will once again reject Lisbon. Where will this leave the EU?

Supporters of the European project will be furious that Irish voters have sabotaged Lisbon and delayed years of progress. Those who view Europe with apprehension may welcome a reflective period to inform, educate and debate with their follow Europeans. Nation-states, like Irish neutrality, may be obsolete. Europeans have been responsible for some of the greatest artistic, cultural and scientific achievements in history. However we have also been responsible for some of the worst excesses of savagery and cruelty.

All of us want an EU that brings out the best in us as Europeans with a shared future. The debate we must have now is over what kind of EU we believe will make that happen.


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