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The Government has already adopted a curious position on the Conference on the Future

The Government has already adopted a curious position on the Conference on the Future of Europe before it has started.

Effectively, alongside 11 other states, it has decided to oppose any major changes that might be proposed by what is a citizen-led, bottom-up exercise in participatory democracy. Imagine if, ahead of the Citizens’ Assembly on Abortion or on Marriage Equality, the Government indicated that it was implacably opposed to anything that might lead to substantial change.

Imagine if the following sentence accompanied the start of a Citizens’ Assembly: ‘It should not create legal obligations, nor should it duplicate or unduly interfere with the established legislative processes’.

You might be justified in being discouraged from participating.

Nevertheless, the Government has decided to embark on a ‘consultation’ with citizens in Ireland with a series of public meetings and citizens’ dialogues, both virtual and physical.

The Conference is due to report in Spring next year. There will be a Citizens’ Convention ahead of that which may meet 3 or 4 times to settle on key issues. The Irish delegation will participate with one hand tied behind its back.

It is all the more surprising given that Ireland has been a pioneer in the area of participatory democracy with Citizens’ Assemblies helping to settle extremely contested public policy areas especially on the abortion issue. As former UK PM, Gordon Brown noted, “(the Citizens’ Assembly) found common ground between devout faith and resolute feminism in an outcome that astonished the world”.

The EMI poll published this week on Irish attitudes to various current legal obligations is worth thinking about.

For example, a majority of people (52%) hold the view that now is the time to reform the EU even if this would result in a referendum. It would be wrong to conclude that this means that 52% people are in favour of increased powers for the EU but at least it should encourage the Government to be open to the possibility of emerging opinions, particularly among young people.

There was also, surprisingly, a majority for further cooperation with the EU on Security and Defence policy. As the late Brendan Halligan pointed out in this newspaper some years ago “neutrality has become more a matter of theology than international politics”.

Chancellor Merkel has said that she is not against the possibility of Treaty change and asserts that the EU’s problems with vaccine roll out indicate the need for greater EU powers in the area of public health. When an EU policy goes spectacularly well it is used as evidence that the EU should acquire more power in the area. If it goes spectacularly badly, the argument is made that the EU doesn’t have enough power to be effective.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

However, there is in my view no doubt whatsoever that the missteps on prioritising price and indemnity on vaccines last summer was driven by Member States’ concerns rather than an inherent incompetence at EU level. It is clear now that we should all have been prioritising supply over price.

There is in my view a strong argument for increasing EU competence in the area of public health even if it requires treaty change and a referendum in Ireland. We can’t return to ‘business as usual’ in the future and a broader discussion needs to take place about the global governance of the production, procurement and distribution of vaccines given the enormous gaps across the world.

On the positive side, the Government is right to point out that citizens are currently focused on specific results and on pandemic recovery. There is no appetite for or interest in the EU institutions themselves or their relative powers. The Spitzenkandidat initiative or transnational lists are subjects of fascination within the Brussels bubble but not beyond.

It is also a great signal to offer citizens in Northern Ireland the opportunity to contribute to the process. As Northern Ireland is in the Single Market for goods it will always have a stake in the future of the EU.

Finally, I am hopeful that the Conference on the Future of Europe will also consider ways to unlock the full potential of the existing EU treaties. PESCO had been described as the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the Lisbon Treaty before finally being launched in 2017. There are other unused or underused provisions in the Treaty that could be unblocked in areas such as the Rule of law, foreign policy and energy policy.

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