This article appeared on The Malta Independent on Sunday on 22.06.08.
The latest Eurobarometer poll found that more people in Ireland than in any other EU country thought that their country had benefited from membership. Since it joined in 1973, Ireland has received twice as much from the EU budget than it has paid in. Yet the moment the people were asked to vote on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty they delivered a resounding “No”. This was their second Nyet after their “No” vote in 2001 to the Nice Treaty – a “No” that was to be changed to a “Yes” a year later in the bizarre revisionist way we regularly witness in Europe.
Are the Irish an ungrateful nation? Having found the mythological pot at the end of the rainbow are they so spiteful as to be the only troublesome bunch intent on ruining the party? How are we to read this rejection that has spoilt the already discordant notes that have tainted Europe’s march to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? How have we moved from the Vivacissimo of the early nineties to the Grave tempo of crisis that is echoing from the Atlantic to the foot of the Urals? What should we make of it all?
Allegro ma non Troppo
To say that this rejection was not in the air is to be living in a bubble. The slowdown of popular enthusiasm around the European project did not start yesterday. The numerous reasons given for this all contain an ounce of truth yet no all encompassing answer can be given. The pace of change has been bumpy, with no thanks to the political elite steering the ship. Ambivalent interests, the tug of national interests versus common pooling, fear of further integration and the internal struggles of the institutional system of checks and balances all play some role in the slowing down of the project.
Since Amsterdam in 1999 -an interim patchwork Treaty, the EU has been in search of the right path and ultimate solution to define the limits and aspirations of the economic Union that had become so much more than that. The Nice Treaty, the Constitutional Convention and now the Lisbon Treaty have uncovered an unpleasant side of the EU mechanism. Rather than pool their efforts into a series of convincing steps based on popular inspiration, the Member States conspired to turn their project into a sort of Trojan Horse. Rather than face and convince “the people”, they retreated back to their workshops with each popular defeat and concocted methods of gradual, babystep advancement that would avoid the ultimate consultation. Rather than a sweeping revolution of ideas we have a result of multiple compromises that almost passed through the back door -were it not for the luck of the Irish and their right to be consulted.
Scherzo: Molto Vivace, Presto
It was with this hurried, unfortunate plan that the 27 states faced a series of ratifications by National Parliaments. Each parliament laboured under the not too honest declaration that the Lisbon Treaty was not, after all, the Constitutional Project and therefore did not require popular ratification. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes everybody could see that this was quite a travesty but not many of the governments in the driving seats were willing to accept this truth and thus cause any prejudice to a flailing project that was basically the leftover of compromise upon compromise.
What is impressive are the many reactions from European quarters to the Irish “No”. Numbers have been thrown into play: Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s Interior Minister complained about “letting a few million Irish make decisions for 495m”. He seemed to forget that the couple of thousand members of parliament in all states where referendums (I prefer “referenda” but it seems that the “s” plural is more conventional) were excluded were claiming to be entitled to do better than the “few million Irish”. How many of them were elected with the express mandate to ratify a Treaty like the Lisbon Treaty? Too few methinks. And there too lies the problem.
Other leaders also betray a touch of contempt for this direct method of ratification. A petulant Sarkozy immediately threw in the condition that there will be no new accessions unless the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. The Turks are angry? Blame the Irish. In fact, according to most of Europe’s political elite the Irish are “setting themselves up as objects of hate”. This week’s Economist rightly criticises the absurd idea that Ireland should now find a solution because it caused the problem. Putting the blame on Ireland and the Irish is to ignore the root of the problem – which lies far from the shores of the Emerald Isle and is deeply set in the minds of all the governments of the EU states.
Adagio: Molto e Cantabile
The problem is not the Irish and their vote. Frankly I find many of the the reasons for the Irish voting “No” quite ridiculous (bir-rispett kollu). The words “misinformation”, “spurious No campaigns” and “insular mentality” come to mind. Voters at the referendum booths declared to journalists that they were voting to keep out “abortion, being called up to the European army and homosexuality”. Ring a familiar bell? Referendums themselves are a subject of bitter debate as to whether they are the best tool for assessing democratic will. Jean Monnet Professor George Schopflin makes an interesting argument on Opendemocracy.org that discussions about referendums and their efficacy tend to confuse populism and democracy.
In the 1960’s there was a heated debate as to the role of referendums to assess the will of the people. One of the main protagonists of the debate, Lord Devlin, argued that referendums would be useful for ethical issues – a sound guide to the content of morality but less so about practical procedural law. (I admit this is a very rough summary of the debate). There is much more to be said about the usefulness of referendums in today’s pluralist society but that would require a book, not a 2,000 word article.
Consider, just for one second that the government decided to redraft Malta’s COCP (Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure). Little, or no part, of the COCP involves “values and ethics”. Surely many would agree that in an imaginary referndum on the COCP (split down two ways) would be won by the side with the strongest power of conviction – without much thought as to whether the people have understood the immense pleasures of jactitation suits or whether they really have an opinion on the best way to redraft the provisons on disentail. Not to mention the disquisitions one would have as to whether your average man in the street has really come to terms with the Benefits of Cessio Bonorum (thank God it was repealed).
Is this really a judgement on referendums? Is J’accuse serious about disenfranchising the people on such an important issue as to the next step of European integration? Not at all. What I believe is that before the hurried ratifications, before the crossing of fingers in the blind hope that a popular vote will say yes to a travesty of a Treaty, it is time to get the European project back in perspective.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
(Oh Friends, Not these tones). The right time, the right feel, the right pulse. Forget the cliches of Europe being at a crossroads. Forget this doom and gloom talk of crisis (European) in a crisis(World Economy). This is the time for Europe, its leaders, its states, its regions and its peoples to look in the mirror and assess where we have got to. The leaders have an opportunity to set the record state. Justifying the “No” vote as some isolated incident against the general tide would be bloody stupid. Stupid because it will continue to distance the demos from the project. Governments have got the people used to blame the EU for all their ills and while claiming ownership for the achievements.
The institutional balance needs revising. The EU needs a stronger Foreign Policy structure. The division of competences and powers of parliaments have to be redefined. A role for the new players has to be found. Until now we have hiccuped along at the wrong tempo as States got embroiled in a trap wihtout an exit. From Giscard d’Estaing’s bumbling in the Constitutional Convention to the superficial toying with the people’s will, the EU has toed a line that has not worked.
All is not lost. I see it as a victory of sorts. A victory because this is the right excuse to engage with the people – to highlight what has been achieved until now and define the next framework. Federal Europe remains a utopia for many, but a Europe of Regions which seriously transforms “unity into diversity” into oil for the big machine with a great history still remains a tempting tasty promise. The people must be consulted on the general principles. The procedural details and ironing out will follow. A new Convention should address what the General Principles are and not get mired down into procedural debates based on the old-style bureaucratic thinking. Above all, the political elite of the continent must not continue along the obstinate path of devising another trojan horse to get sterile projects in through the back door – they must win the trust of the demos by offering a new, strengthened dynamic project. Deine Zaube binden wieder Was die Mode streng getheilt (Your sweet magic frees all others, Held in Custom’s rigid rings. ).
The Curse of the Ninth
Beethoven never went any further than the Ninth Symphony (Ode to Joy). Other composers than Beethoven got stuck at number nine and this led to a superstition among subsequent composers (like Gustav Mahler) who would avoid composing their ninth or tenth symphonies to avoid the curse of the Ninth. We have no place for superstition nor for obstinate ways to ignore
decisions of the masses. Solutions like two-speed Europe or revisiting the electorate for a hopeful, cheeky second vote (in the hope of a reversal) are not what Project Europe is about.
The challenges at the dawn of the new century can be better faced by a united Europe that is at peace with its own project of discovery. Burying the Lisbon Treaty idea is not a defeat. It is a chance for rebirth and strengthening of a project that is full of successes and can look forward to many more.
To put it all briefly the Irish vote is not a “No to Joy” but a strong chance to reconsider. The project will not grind to a halt. Directives and regulations seeking to further improve the quality of life of the citizens of Europe will continue to be drafted and enacted. National parliaments will continue to serve their people while bearing in mind their commitment to the greater project. It is also up to the demos to give its input and feedback. This is not a time to sulk but an exciting time of engagement. Malta, its politicians and its people have a good opportunity before them – and the signs are that, hiccups, disagreements and all, we might be just in time to rise to the challenge.
A final note on the new Immigrant Returns Directive. It is an interesting project that deals with irregular immigrants and not asylum seekers. It is the subject of heated debate in Europe and abroad and it too is a product of compromise. We would do well to engage in such processes and contribute to the growth of an ever closer union of peoples.
A better and stronger Europe can only be music to the citizen’s ears.
Jacques blogs daily at https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Comment is free.