Irish Kicks at the Foundation of the New Europe

While international election-junkies get their fix analysing polls and results in Germany, Brazil and the US, they’re only now beginning to notice the referendum due to take place on October 19th here on Europe’s offshore isle. At the risk of appearing parochial: what’s at stake here in Ireland is perhaps more fundamentally important than any of those other electoral spats–it’s the institutional future of the world’s nascent superpower, the European Union (EU). And Ireland’s position, as it prepares to vote for a second time on the EU’s Nice Treaty, is putting that future very much in doubt.

The reasons this vote has turned out to be so fraught, unique and important are fluky and contingent. As anyone who has travelled around the single-currency continent lately can testify, the union, comprising at present 15 member states, has been politically “integrating” in stages–leaving behind its old status as the European Economic Community–with a new treaty every few years to spell out the evolving arrangements. The Treaty of Nice, agreed in 2000 at a meeting in the French resort, is just the latest stage: it sets things up for a dramatic expansion of the EU to the east–in part by giving more decision-making weight to the bigger west-European powers and removing the requirement of unanimity for more Euro-decisions.

Successive Irish governments have been enthusiastic participants in the EU’s evolution, not least because what used to be called “cohesion funds” (i.e. pork) could be poured into poorer countries like this one to bring the infrastructure up to Euro-standard. However, since 1987, when a court case established that EU treaties, inasmuch as they diluted sovereignty, required amendment to Eamonn DeValera’s 1937 Constitution, governments have had to put every treaty to a referendum of the Irish people. Mostly over the last 15 years the Irish people have said “Sure, why not?” But last year the government, rushing to be among the first in Europe to ratify Nice, got sucker-punched in the referendum by a loose alliance of traditional nationalists, fine-print critics and a reinvigorated anti-militarist left that voiced concerns about European security policy and the implications for Irish neutrality. Voices from the small but noisy far left also cogently argued that the EU was building a “bosses’ Europe”, geared toward privatisation and tight budgets, poised to exploit the 12 potential applicant countries.

Shame-faced at the solid “No” majority in that referendum, the government ran off to Brussels to promise that it would arrange a re-run just soon as it could ensure the right result. In the meantime, the other 14 member states, without Ireland’s constitutional quirk, have all ratified the treaty with votes in their own legislatures.

A parliamentary vote in Ireland would be a piece of cake. The four parties that generally make up the main government and opposition here in varying combinations–Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats–are all “enthusiastic Europeans”, as they like to put it. Same goes for the main trade unions and the bosses’ and farmers’ organisations. The trouble lies with the electorate–and for all we know the same trouble would bedevil other governments if they were forced into Irish-style exercises in democracy. Indeed, while the Irish political and media establishment reacted with embarrassment to last year’s No vote, many other European pols were heard to murmur: “There but for the grace of God”

The Government’s efforts to soften up the electorate and make it second-time-lucky have included a travelling road-show, aka “Forum”, for shooting the breeze about the wonders or otherwise of Europe; and a quite brilliant PR stroke on neutrality. The latter involved getting an EU summit in Seville to issue a “declaration” purporting to respect Ireland’s right to opt-out of any “common defense” arrangements, and adding another little Constitutional tidbit to the referendum itself, along similar lines. Now, voters who want to ensure constitutionally that Ireland stays out of defense pacts will have to vote Yes.

In one sense this misses the point. A Yes vote might ensure that Ireland can’t rush to Italy’s aid if Sicily is invaded by Tunisia. But it won’t stop the Irish Army from taking part in EU “Rapid Reaction Force” actions in more far-flung parts of the globe; in fact, Army brass are excitedly acquiring the toys to do just that sort of thing. The only restrictions the government says it is placing on such actions would be a requirement of its own approval of such an action–not a problem, evidently–and some form of UN figleaf–plenty of room for ambiguity and manoeuvre there too, as Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan can testify.

Nonetheless, this twist on neutrality is a sharp one: the government, understanding that it can’t defeat neutrality as a core value of Irish voters, has instead simply enlisted it to the Yes cause. The latest poster: “Vote YES for Neutrality”. (Just what constitutes Irish neutrality is another day’s debate: the state’s muted but definite pro-US tilt during the Cold War turned into an out-and-out servile relationship through the 1990s, when Bill Clinton’s involvement in the Northern Ireland “peace process” and a “Celtic Tiger” economy built on US investment were the dominant foreign-policy factors. Last year the government spoke up early and often to support the “war on terror” as waged in Afghanistan.)

Anyway, opinion polls suggest the government’s strategy is on target–Yes leads by roughly three to two. However, with about a third of voters undecided, the government has a fight on its hands, and its political vision is being blurred by a series of mishaps, scandals and public-service cuts that have hit the headlines since the Fianna Fail-led government was returned in May’s general election. The Taioseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern looks frankly punch-drunk, as the interim findings of a tribunal investigating planning corruption have hit too close for comfort. Dublin buzzes with speculation that a disgraced former minister, Ray Burke, “knows where the bodies are buried” and has little to lose if he helps disinter a few. His Fianna Fail party, still by far the most popular in the state, has lost some support; on the other hand, the media’s insistence that the referendum now constitutes a “make or break” test for the government, an “uphill battle”, may actually work to rally even the more disaffected troops.

And lucky for Bertie, the rest of the political establishment is taking up the running on Nice as Fianna Fail stumbles. Some of the effects are risible, e.g. the billboard from the employers’ confederation, showing two grim-faced children and the caption “Vote Yes to jobs for them”–which looks more like a brave plea from the bosses for a return to child labour than a promise of a full-employment future within an expanded EU.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fail’s main opposition for three-quarters of a century, is no less ridiculous. The party had a disastrous election and is said to be in desperate need of “rebranding”; so on the sex-sells principle, the party has allowed its youth wing to publish a poster showing scantily-clad totty of both genders and the leering words: “It’s better to be in than out.” Since a No vote would by no means take Ireland out of Europe, this constitutes no more than a pointless attempt to associate nubile and willing young flesh with the sad old souls of Fine Gael.

A No vote would simply mean the Nice Treaty falls, not just for Ireland–with just over 1 per cent of the union’s population–but for the whole EU. Institutional Europe, which indulges itself in periodic bouts of public breast-beating about sorting out its “democratic deficit”, would have failed its only true democratic test, not once but twice. If it happens, you’ll hear a little about Ireland’s crisis-ridden government and lot about Irish greed and selfishness–depriving eastern Europe of the benefits from which we’ve reputedly gained. You might even hear about the more right-wing No campaigners who have tried to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment by warning of a potential “flood” of workers from the would-be member-states to the east.

But keep in mind that Europe as a political phenomenon is being built over the heads of its people, and give the fighting Irish some credit for taking a kick at the foundations.

HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology and a columnist with The Irish Times.

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Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)., Twitter @harrybrowne