DUBLIN, Ireland—European Unity will take another major step forward this year when the European Union's (EU) 15 members ratify the Amsterdam Treaty, signed last June by their heads of state and governments. Once enacted, the Treaty will hand over more power than ever before to the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Council of Ministers in deciding issues of foreign policy, internal security, labor relations, and human rights.
Of the 15 members of the EU, Ireland and Denmark are the only two whose national constitutions demand that a referendum be held before the Amsterdam Treaty becomes part of domestic law. Elsewhere, all that is required is the assent of the various national parliaments. Yet, despite this loss of national independence and sovereignty, the Treaty looks likely to be passed with little opposition or controversy in almost all European countries. In the Republic of Ireland, there is such a lack of public debate about the Treaty that the leader of the Labor Party, Ruairi Quinn, warned of the existence of “a cozy consensus.”
There is only one explanation for the lack of public debate in Europe about the Amsterdam Treaty: the vast majority of the EU's 371.9 million citizens regard greater European unity as a worthwhile and positive goal. This regard is based both on the economic and political success of the European Union and the political ideals that have lead to a united Europe. The EU is rooted in the Coal and Steel Treaty negotiated in the years following World War II by Addenauer of Germany, Schuman and Monet of France, and DeGasperi of Italy. All four statesmen were Catholics, horrified by the massive destruction caused by Two World Wars in less than half a century, who sought to create a new climate of cooperation in Europe that would create long term peace between nations.
As Catholics, they were strongly committed to the ideals of social justice and as a result, much of the European Union's policies on employment and social rights are rooted in Catholic social teaching. The Coal and Steel Treaty's provisions were strengthened and expanded to other areas of economic interest, including agriculture, by the Treaty of Rome in 1956, which was signed by six European nations. The Treaty of Rome lead to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) which Ireland, Britain, and Denmark joined in 1973. Very quickly, the EEC's brief went beyond the purely economic and included social and cultural issues, the word “economic” was dropped from its title, and it became officially known as the European Community (EC). As the EC expanded, the original aim of promoting peace remained behind the decision to allow entry to new members, particularly those from southern Europe.
When Spain, Portugal, and Greece joined, all three countries were fledgling democracies recently freed from military rule and EC membership was seen as a way of protecting that democracy.
In 1987, following the Maastricht Treaty, the European Community became the European Union (EU) in a move that gave greater powers to the European Parliament and European Commission. Maastricht also laid the foundations for European Monetary Union (EMU) and the creation of the Euro, a new pan—European currency that will replace the pound, the French franc, the Deutsch (German) mark, and 12 other national currencies.
One of the main benefits of EMU is that it allows European citizens in different countries to compare more easily their wage levels and the price of goods and services across Europe. The Maastricht Treaty included a “social chapter” which improved employee protection against unfair dismissal and the right to trade union representation. One clause forces multinational companies to set up European Workers Councils and to facilitate meetings between staff representatives working in different countries. The EU's most recent members, Finland, Austria and Sweden, brought the total membership to 15 countries. With EMU fast approaching, these countries did not wish to be left outside the new pan—European market—and the end of the Cold War also reduced the need for their neutrality. The EEC's original aim of providing social solidarity with poorer nations and regions has proved a great boon to Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which have benefited from a wide range of subsidies for improvements in roads, housing, and basic infrastructure. Farmers have also benefited greatly from the EU's agricultural policies in the form of subsidies and grants.
With so many benefiting from the EU's largesse and cooperation between France and Germany at an all time high, it is little wonder that there is hardly any opposition to greater European Union.
The Amsterdam Treaty has four main objectives:
• to place employment and citizens’ rights at the heart of the Union;
• to strengthen security and remove any remaining obstacles to freedom of movement;
• to give Europe a stronger voice in world matters;
• to make the Union's institutions more efficient with a view to enlargement.
National governments will bear primary responsibility for efforts to reduce unemployment, but the EU will also coordinate policies to tackle unemployment. While European taxpayers will not be asked to pay extra for job creation projects, the EU will use “the margin available in the current budget as far as possible” and the new European Investment Bank will make low interest loans available to small businesses. Every member of the EU will have to introduce a minimum wage and limit the working week to a maximum of 48 hours—two measures strongly influenced by Catholic social teaching. Fundamental rights, laid down in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, will now be monitored by the EU that will have the power to impose sanctions on member states which “systematically violate” those rights. The Treaty of Amsterdam also includes a non—discrimination clause that may cause problems for Churches who refuse, for example, to employ homosexual teachers or staff who do not support a Christian ethos. In an effort to increase “open government,” EU citizens will have the right of access to documents originating with the European Commission and the European Parliament. The Council of Ministers, too, must make the minutes of its meetings available whenever it acts as legislator.
These provisions have been criticized by the National Union of Journalists in Britain and Ireland who say that Europe is paying only “lip—service” to the idea of open government. On matters of security, cooperation between European police forces will be increased through a new body, Europol, that gathers crime data from the whole of Europe and which will also have investigative duties and responsibilities. Europol's work takes place behind the scenes, because only the police forces of the individual member states are allowed to make arrests. Identity checks at the internal frontiers of the European Union will be abolished, though not at the borders of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Controls at external frontiers, ports, and airports will be strengthened and “implemented with equal vigor throughout the European Union.”
EU member states will also harmonize their rules on issuing visas and granting asylum to people from outside the EU. Human rights groups claim that this will create a “Fortress Europe” denying the benefits of prosperity to the people of the Third World and increasing the “North—South divide.” The Amsterdam Treaty now includes “sustainable development” as an EU goal and allows for the introduction of minimum standards of air and water pollution across Europe. Member states are allowed to apply more stringent standards if they want to. In the area of public health, for the first time ever, the EU may set minimum standards for the quality and safety of blood and human organs, to combat the risk of infection from the HIV virus and hepatitis. The EU may also introduce pan—European anti—drugs legislation.
The European Parliament is granted greater powers and will have the final word on a wide range of policy issues. More importantly, the European Parliament will have a say on appointments to the European Commission, the EU's civil service. Foreign policy decision making will be streamlined. Member states who do not agree with a particular EU policy—military intervention in the Gulf, for example—will refrain from voting and thus have no say. This is the greatest criticism of the Amsterdam Treaty by the Green Movement in Ireland, Denmark, and Sweden, who argue against the loss of their countries’ neutrality and independence in foreign policy.
RELIGIOUS LEADERS’ CONCERNS
So far, the Irish hierarchy has not discussed the impact the Amsterdam Treaty may have on the recruitment of Church personnel. But in Britain the anti—discrimination provisions are causing concern among Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. Last year, British Home Office officials met representatives of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the Free Church Council to discuss their fears about the convention that is due to be incorporated into British statute shortly. British Church leaders fear the convention will allow legal action against clergy and parishes by people including: those refused Communion by priests; gay couples refused Church weddings; and those refused employment by the Church because they reject Christianity.
Nicholas Coote, secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said: “In the United Kingdom, Catholic priests act as assistant registrars at weddings, so they perform ‘public acts.’ What we fear is that when we refuse to ‘remarry’ a divorced couple we would be faced with a court judgment stating that this was incompatible with the convention.
“The Home Office is very reluctant to make an exemption for the Churches. They told us ‘You are saying you support human rights, except when they apply to you. ‘But if push comes to shove, we will not remarry divorced people, no matter what the law might be.”
Another concern is the convention's effect on employment law. While Catholic schools in the UK, for example, may openly advertise for staff who support their Christian ethos, there may be problems when it comes to terminating contracts. Coote said: “It is not clear what would happen in cases of dismissal where a male head teacher takes up, in very public circumstances, with a boyfriend. He could be in sympathy with the Catholic ethos, but behave in a way that contravenes that and such a person might try it on in a test case.”
Church of England spokesman Steve Jenkins said Anglican fears also included: would a future government force the Church of England to consecrate women bishops and would it be illegal for parishes opposed to the ordination of women to refuse the appointment of a woman priest? But the mainstream Churches’ concerns are about this one detail of the Amsterdam Treaty and not its overall thrust—indeed the primate of all Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh, has welcomed the fact that the treaty will help end discrimination against the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.
The Green Movement's objections are much more firmly rooted ideologically. In Finland and Sweden, Green opposition is effectively neutered by the fact that only the Greens are in opposition and the Treaty needs only government approval. In Denmark and Ireland, where referenda are due to take place, the Greens are trying to mobilize public opinion against the Treaty. Irish Green Party spokesperson Jan O‘Carroll said: “We are wary of the EU usurping the role of the United Nations in the area of international peace and security or the role of local, regional, or national governments in the determination of economic and agricultural policy.
“We believe in strong, democratic control of decision making and therefore support de—centralization. The Amsterdam Treaty will move democratic control further away from the people. The two biggest EU institutions—the European Commission and the Council of Ministers—will have their powers boosted if the treaty is ratified—neither of these are directly elected by the people. The Treaty also fails to address the unaccountable nature of EU affairs. If it is ratified, the workings of the EU will remain deeply secretive. Furthermore, the new police force, Europol, has very little judicial control.”
The Irish referendum will probably take place May 22. O‘Carroll says that because public opposition to the Amsterdam Treaty is higher in Denmark, the Irish referendum on the issue will take place before the Danish vote—"in case a Danish ‘No’ influences the Irish electorate.”
She added: “An Irish ‘Yes’ would also boost the pro—treaty side in Denmark.” At present, it is almost certain that the Amsterdam Treaty will be passed by the Irish electorate, as the treaty is supported by both the government and the two main opposition parties—indeed, the opposition parties were in office when the treaty was negotiated.
Looking to the future, Labor leader Ruairi Quinn said that the Amsterdam Treaty will further contribute to European stability and growth while increasing the EU's standing across the globe. He predicted that Europe's new currency, the Euro, will quickly join the U.S. dollar and the Japanese Yen as a reserved currency. More radically, early in the next millennium, he predicted that oil will “be quoted in Euro per barrel instead of U.S. dollars.”
“This change will come about because the Euro will be a more stable and less volatile currency than the dollar,” he added.
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.