Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

More Irish referendum aftermath thoughts

First up, Nanne’s done a handy roundup of blog reactions (with a few more from RZ) – which further goes to show that there’s no real consensus on what the hell should be done. Some more fervent pro-EU types are adopting the “sod the Irish” approach of continuing ratification and booting Ireland out of the EU if they don’t follow along like a well-trained dog. Some anti-EU types are revelling in the red faces in Brussels and calling for the whole thing to be scrapped again because (obviously) a no vote in a referendum means that every single person voting no did so because they hate the EU and everything it stands for. Neither extreme, fairly obviously, is a sensible option.

Me? I’m still at the stage of thinking out loud, so to speak – reading and writing helps me to work out what I think about things, which is why I started blogging in the first place. I’m still not sure if I’m getting anywhere on the short-term solution. Longer-term I have a far firmer idea of what I’d like to see done – but the likelihood of that coming to pass is minimal, so I’ll leave it for now.

Having read a lot of stuff about the vote over the weekend, the best comment piece I’ve seen so far comes – as so often – from the Financial Times. This quotation is somewhat selective, but gives an inkling of what’s becoming my approach:

First the French, then the Dutch and now the Irish have rejected much the same package of institutional reforms that were supposed to make an enlarged EU more effective and more democratic… Their attitude suggests a worrying gulf between EU decision-makers and popular feeling that needs a new sort of response… The No vote[s were] based on a ragbag of reasons to which there is no obvious response.”

In the FT’s take, a repeat referendum would likewise return a “No” – and I imagine the same would be the case in France and the Netherlands had they been given a chance to vote on the Lisbon Treaty as they were on the Constitution. The anger in France at the two fingers the politicians raised to the people by denying them another vote on a treaty that was so similar to a text that had already been popularly rejected is immense. Who can blame them?

Because the biggest problem facing the EU now is not the much-needed institutional reforms that Lisbon (and the constitution, and Nice) was trying to fix to help the thing function more effectively – it is that the people of Europe are increasingly starting to think that there may well be something in all those allegations of the EU being an undemocratic project of the quasi-mythical political elites for the benefit of those same elites. And you can hardly blame them – French and Dutch “No” votes have already been ignored, the Danish and Irish people have already been told to vote again when they returned the wrong result the first time, and now it looks like the inconvenience of the Irish people voting “No” again is going to lead to some kind of get-around. It’s hard to think of the last time the people of Europe were consulted and their opinions actually taken on board. In fact, I can’t think of a time this has happened – bar the odd small-scale experiment as part of the Plan D initiative over the last couple of years.

Does it matter that on numbers alone the “No” voters in Ireland are a tiny percentage of the EU’s population as a whole? Not while the rest of that population doesn’t get a vote it doesn’t – as pointed out elsewhere, so what if “only” 860,000 Irish voted “No” when the rest of the EU denies the people a vote and leaves the decision up to a mere 9,000-odd politicians? And what does it matter while the EU continues to function with its current set-up, with smaller countries given disproportionate influence to counter the dominance of those with larger populations? The Lisbon Treaty aimed to fix some of the more silly elements of this, but Maltese MEPs would continue to represent 80,000 Maltese compared to German MEPs representing 800,000 Germans – and in many areas the national veto would still have been maintained. Because part of the very point of the EU is to prevent the larger, stronger countries from dominating the continent. To ignore Ireland’s vote is therefore to go against the very essence of what the EU was set up to achieve.

(Please also note that I say all this as someone who argued repeatedly against holding referenda on the constitution and Lisbon treaty. Contradictory? Possibly – but if you hold votes you’d damned well better abide by the results. If not, the people will tend to get increasingly annoyed with you. It’s bad public relations as much as it’s bad democracy.)

In any case, the FT’s proposal for the next step is one of the least contentious I’ve seen so far, and (I hope) the most likely short-term outcome:

It would be more sensible to put the Lisbon treaty on ice for several years, and try to rescue those parts that are important, uncontentious, and capable of being carried out without treaty amendment… Europe does not need to turn the drama of the Irish No vote into a fully-fledged crisis of confidence. Everyone is fed up with negotiating new treaties. The priority should be to make the EU work better with practical policies… with its present rules and 27 member states. The Nice treaty is not ideal, but losing Lisbon should not be seen as the end of the world.

Calm-headedness is the way forward, for sure. But, as I say, the institutional problems are no longer the most pressing. What is needed now more than ever is an energetic campaign to get the people of Europe on board. Mere propaganda drives will not do it – they need to be brought into the debate and made to feel that their voices count. Because currently – with the European Parliament still largely toothless and the French, Dutch and Irish referendum results all more or less dismissed by the powers that be – you can hardly blame people for feeling that in the EU, the people count for nothing.