Current Affairs Europe Ireland Politics

Lisbon: the hand-wringing begins…

As I predicted when the ‘No’ votes won it in Ireland, several European commentators have decided to ignore the democratic wishes of the Irish people, indicating that only one response to the Lisbon Treaty was acceptable… and it wasn’t ‘No’.

From this morning’s Sunday Times (my emphases in bold):

The initial official reaction to the result was that the verdict of the Irish people “should be respected”. However, it soon became clear that they were regarded as having made a terrible mistake. European politicians queued up to lecture them on the folly of their ways.

It is not truly democratic that less than a million people can decide the fate of almost half a billion Europeans,” said a dejected Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the German leader of the European Greens.

“We are incredibly disappointed,” said Axel Schäfer, a member of the German Bundestag committee on EU affairs. “We think it is a real cheek that the country that has benefited most from the EU should do this. There is no other Europe than this treaty.”

Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, was equally critical, calling for states obstructing integration to be left out of the EU. “Now is the time for a courageous choice by those who want coherent progress in building Europe, leaving out those who, despite solemn signed pledges, threaten to block it,” he said.

There was even a lesson in group loyalty from the Balkans. “Now that they have used the accession and structural funds, when they developed enormously, I’m a little surprised that the solidarity is at an end,” said Stipe Mesic, the Croatian president.

Actually, the Irish decision was the only truly democratic one across all of the 27 member states of the EU. I believe most government secretly feared a public rejection and so avoided the scenario completely by refusing the public a say. Only Ireland was constitutionally obliged to have a referendum, and now, as they say, the people have spoken.

I wonder how voters in the other states would have responded, had they been given the option. Pro-EU attitudes vary considerably from state to state. The UK and most of Scandanavia seems to be generally cooler in their attitudes to integration than say France or Germany.

Let’s not forget that the Lisbon Treaty is simply the European Constitution in another guise. And that Constitution was voted down by the people of France and the Netherlands. I don’t remember anyone calling for them to be thrown out of the European Union at the time.

A phrase I’ve heard over and over since the referendum has been ‘democratic deficit’. There is a definite democratic deficit across the EU where the public weren’t given the opportunity to vote on a treaty that would alter their countries significantly. There was a democrtic deficit in Ireland where the government, and all other major political parties (except the gangsters and hoodlums in Sinn Fein), ran a lacklustre and patronising ‘Yes’ campaign, assuming the Irish people would line up and do as they were told.

But they didn’t.

There was definitely an element of anti-government sentiment in the ‘No’ vote, some frustration and fear at the slowing economy for sure. But the Government did nothing to stop the wild rumours that the ‘No’ campaign propogated, such as the Treaty would legalise abortion in all member states and would create a European Army and thus destroy Ireland’s cherished neutrality. Utter nonsense, but this took hold over some people in the absence of a solid counter-argument from the ‘Yes’ campaign. Shameful.

I’m not a Euro-sceptic, I’m all for continuing integration across the EU and for the development of trans-national structures and cooperation. I am, however, solidly against a tiny minority of politicians changing the status quo of the Union without a democratic mandate.

Ireland was not alone in receiving strutural funds from the EU – Spain, Portugal, Greece and the newer members of the EU have all benefitted financially. However, this does not mean these state should simply ‘toe the line’ or cease to raise their voices in disagreement. The EU has not ‘bought’ Irish silence.

The EU’s leaders knew well in advance that Ireland would have to have a referendum on this issue. They did nothing to ensure that the Irish people were well enough informed or that they could see the benefits of approving the Treaty. There was a generally held assumption that the Irish would be ‘good Europeans’ and gratefully shout ‘Yes’ in unison. And when they didn’t, there was annoyance, dismay and shock. Why? Why couldn’t they see this coming?

If anyone should be ‘blamed’ for the ‘No’ vote, it shouldn’t be Ireland’s voters. It should be the arrogant and feckless politicians who mis-managed the campaign (Brian Cowen, Dick Roche, Mary Coughlin… pathetic).

What next? Well, the Irish government has already said they won’t present another referendum on the matter in the next 12 months. I think the heads of EU governments should take a long hard look at this situation and examine what they can do to more effectively sell the benefits of Lisbon and demonstrate they are listening to the public mood. But they have a battle on their hands.

The Irish weren’t the only people rejecting the Treaty – they were just the only voices we could hear.

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