Ireland votes Yes: It’s not just the economy
Mon 05 Oct, 2009
Ireland’s second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty had Eurocrats on the edge of their seat – but it was the national government’s problems of legitimacy that made the European Union look a lot more attractive.
By James Heartfield
When you get the answer wrong in an Irish referendum, they just hold it again until you get it right (a bit like a terrorist trial in England). Last year the Irish sabotaged the European Union’s stop-gap constitution, when they voted down the Treaty agreed between Europe’s leaders at Lisbon.
It was a heart-in-mouth moment for the Eurocrats. After all, the only reason that there was a Lisbon Treaty is because the French and Dutch voted down the proposed European Constitution in 2005. It was beginning to look like the people of Europe just did not want to have a European Union. Socialist leader Segolène Royal was reported as saying ‘This referendum is bloody stupid’, adding: ‘We were bloody stupid enough to ask for one and Jacques Chirac was bloody stupid enough to call it’ (Le Canard enchaîné, 21 January 2005.)
The ‘Lisbon Treaty’ was widely understood to be a cheat. The whole idea was supposed to be that Europe’s people would have a constitution of their own – but here was the old-fashioned deal cooked up between Europe’s leaders once again.
What the European elite really wanted – a streamlined system of imposing centralised regulations – they got through the Lisbon Treaty, only without the window-dressing of a ‘Constitution’. Academics like Ulrich Beck and Thomas Christiansen said afterwards that they never wanted a ‘capital-C’ constitution anyway, because that would be too much like, well, like a democracy. It would be much better, they said if Europe’s future were decided by an open-ended process of negotiation between elites and ‘civil society’ (code for some non-governmental organisations and business lobbies).
Still, the Irish refused to understand that the Lisbon Treaty, which hands over more power to Brussels, was not supposed to be a democratic constitution, and insisted on voting on it. Worse still, they voted it down. Everyone was gob-smacked. Would the whole of the European Union be held up because of those Irish insisting on their rights? Ireland’s Taoiseach Brian Cowen was called in to explain why he was messing everything up. The Irish must vote again, he was told.
But this time around, the Irish voted yes. The European Commissioners breathed a sigh of relief – and are even feeling a bit cocky. But why did the Irish voters change their minds?
According to the Yes-lobby it was just that the penny dropped, but few people really believe that. Conventional wisdom is that fear of economic recession has focussed Irish minds and persuaded them to stop mucking about. Ireland’s recession is severe, with public sector pay being slashed and lay-offs all around. The days when young Irish men and women had to emigrate are not that distant.
No doubt fear of recession played its part. But the thing that keeps pushing Europe’s wobbly charabanc forward is the same thing that has been pushing it forward for some time. The fortunes of the European Union all depend on the extent to which Europe’s voters have lost their faith in national governments.
The European Union has no positive appeal to Europeans. Its success has been entirely dependent upon the failures of national governments. The more that people got disengaged from their elected governments, the less problematic it was to put their faith in un-elected institutions.
What went wrong for the EU in France and Holland in 2005, and in Ireland in 2008, was that for the first time, it was the European Union itself that was under scrutiny. Before then, the Brussels Eurocrats had been mostly hiding behind the failures of national governments, popping up with the odd grant here and there, but mostly ignored. Dissatisfied with their standing the European officials overreached themselves and launched their Treaty on the European Union with great fanfare. Sad to say this was not the American Colonies clamouring for independence in 1776, but tired old politicians and bureaucrats lost in a maze of unintelligible gobble-de-gook. In 2005, and then again in 2008, it was the European Union that shrivelled in the harsh light of popular distrust of political leaders.
Wisely, the Eurocrats scuttled back under their stone. They would not make the mistake again of making a direct appeal to the people of Europe for a while. Ireland’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was the last piece of that unfinished business. In the first referendum, in 2008, the No camp looked like a breath of fresh air, different from the establishment. Since then, their own limitations have been examined. The leaders of the No camp want to withdraw from the EU, but lack the courage to put that to the voters. Socialists, some greens and Sinn Feiners are a bit left-field – along with a catholic businessman – but not all that novel.
Worse still for the No Camp, the government is in real difficulty. You might think that would help the Noes – it did last time. In fact the 2008 No vote was in part a protest vote against the government. The fact that the established parties were all for the Constitution meant that Cowen’s mainstream party coalition was a negative factor for the Yes vote.
But this time it did not work like that. Cowen’s tough, budget-cutting government is making itself yet more unpopular than it was, now that Ireland’s formerly booming economy has gone tits-up. For voters, though, this time around, the failure of the national government has tended to make the case that Ireland needs the European Union to help out. No doubt fears over the economy concentrates Irish voters’ minds. But fear over the economy is not the principle reason why the Irish have voted yes this time. Their vote is not a positive endorsement of the European Union. It is a vote of despair in the failure of national government to provide a solution to their problems.
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