Why the Irish Vote is a Wake-Up Call for Pro-Europeans
18 June 2008
There is something almost Brechtian about the Irish vote. If Europeans cannot have the Europe they want, then Europe will have to choose different Europeans. That to begin with was the response of angry promoters of the Lisbon Treaty as they looked aghast at the Irish No. Bullying language was heard. The point was made that Ireland had benefited from CAP largesse as if France and other countries had also not supped generously at the table laden with European agro-subsidies over the years. Undoubtedly, one of the causes of the Irish No was the fear that a liberal, pro-globalisation European Commission, with Peter Mandelson in charge of world trade issues, would start building down the agricultural subsidies Ireland enjoys.
Indeed, a steady trope of the London Eurosceptics (and pro-EU Brits) is that CAP must go. So the Irish plea to maintain CAP might have been the occasion of scorn by the UKIP and Tories. But the pleasure in seeking the Irish give a slap across the face of Brussels trumped any wish to see major reforms of how Europe works.
George Schöplin argues in a fascinating piece just posted on Open Democracy that the Irish referendum exposes some of the core problems about the conflict between plebiscitary and parliamentary democracy. Certainly, it was amusing to see Gerry Adams, one of the most successful of the populist-nationalist leaders in current European politics emerge as the star figure on the BBC television coverage of the Irish No. Of course, like Stuart Wheeler, Lord Ashcroft and Stanley Kalms in England, we now have an millionaire businessman – an English Eurosceptic with an Irish passport - who believes that his wealth allows influence over democracy.
The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland also claimed victory plus the usual nationalist anti-EU grouplets. But at the next Irish general election, these forces will not win many seats in the Dail – Ireland’s parliament. In France, Poland and Spain there have been important elections in the last 12 months which have seen victories for politicians who have campaigned explicitly on a pro-Lisbon Treaty platform. President Sarkozy defeated the pro-referendum socialists in France with this pledge to ratify Lisbon by parliamentary means. He is entitled to feel that the millions who voted for him and for Lisbon also have a right to be counted as much as the 860,000 Irish who voted No.
Given the unpopularity of the ruling party in Ireland it is doubtful if any referendum on any issue supported by the current political elite in Dublin would be won. The same is true in Britain. I entered politics at a time when there was a huge right-wing campaign for a referendum on restoring capital punishment. I have been leery of referendums ever since. The decision of the Liberal Democrats to align themselves with the Tories in 2004 in favour of a referendum on the defunct constitution forced Tony Blair’s hand. With Labour anti-EU MPs seeking to take Labour back to the 1980s, and the failure of the government to promote Europe – my ministerial budget to provide factual information on Europe was cut to £200,000, the kind of amount Nike might spend on promoting a new shoe lace in Birmingham – the Commons arithmetic became dodgy.
Blair preferred to opt for a referendum rather than defend Europe. This was not the first example of new Labour opportunism being put above principle. As it happened the French and the Dutch killed the constitution. What came back was a modest amending treaty with more power for national parliaments and as Catherine Stihler, the smart Labour MEP, pointed out in the Financial Times, new rights for children to match the rights for animals in existing treaties. In fact, the EU could do a lot more if national governments would agree to cooperate under existing treaties. The High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs could today join the EU Commission to agree lines on foreign policy but the Commission refuses to admit him to its deliberations. So far this century, Europe has spent and still spends too much time this century debating its inner-workings and what the EU is and might be rather than what Europe does and must do. When the EU moves from the Europe of être – being, to the Europe of faire – doing, citizens’ support may return. But in a darkening world economy as rising costs for fuel, food and credit erode purchasing power, the chances of a confident pro-EU movement amongst frightened, defensive, nervous voters are slim.
The Delors coalition of support for Europe which combined open trade capital with a strong social element has slowly dissolved. European capitalism is weak, unable to offer jobs or compete with the new centres of economic energy around the world. The European Court of Justice has come out with judgements which strike a dagger into the heart of settled union wage-bargaining systems in Germany, Sweden and Finland. All three countries do not have legal minimum wage rules which, if in place, might have prevented the ECJ from interfering in wage settlement mechanism.
But the end result is a growing disillusionment with Europe as a source of social justice. Coupled with enlargement and the possibility of Turkey joining and a toxic cocktail of hate against the EU can easily be mixed by fervent Eurosceptics.
The Irish were told lies that Lisbon meant the end of Irish control over abortion, over taxes, and over cherished neutrality. There is nothing in Lisbon that represents any threat to Ireland in these areas but once a lie about Europe has its boots on getting the truth out is impossible. I have just received an email from a constituent in Rotherham. The writer tells me that the EU has a secret plan to abolish all elected district, town, city and county councillors in Britain. Where does she get this nonsense from? But the email is well-argued and polite. When voters are led to believe such guff what chance does truth have?
And the truth is that the EU takes just 1 per cent of Europe’s gross national income. Of that one per cent 85 per cent goes straight back to national governments to spend on farmers’ subsidies and on regional projects. Thus 15 per cent – one seventh of one per cent – stays with "Europe" to spend and enforce its will. There is no super-state that can be built with just one seventh of one per cent of the income of the area its presumes to govern. Indeed, the House of Commons Library produces reports showing that fewer than 10 per of laws in the UK emanate from Europe. In the field of trade and product standardisation, Europe does decide and EU rules now influence environmental issues. But 90 per cent of the laws European nations make – on tax, on social security, on education, on crime, on divvying up spending, on war and peace – are all made-in-Britain (and other nations) laws.
But Europe’s political leaders make a habit of blaming Europe for all they do not like. And not mentioning Europe when good things happen like four weeks’ paid holiday or lower mobile phone bills. Can anyone recall a British minister who regularly and repeatedly makes the case for Europe? I tried to but was fired in a 30-second phone call from Tony Blair after endless briefing from the Euro-hostile forces in the Treasury. The same is true in Ireland. Brian Cowan said he has not bothered to read the Lisbon Treaty. Why vote for a man who has not read what he asks you to vote for! And if no-one speaks for Europe why should voters vote for Europe? Pro-Europeans are complacent. Anti-European are fervent. Evangelical passion against Europe always trumps the boring assertion of reason.
In that sense the Irish No should be a wake-up call. If no-one makes the case for Europe then the centrifugal forces that want to weaken and break up the EU will grow in strength. Common sense has broken out as both David Miliband and Gordon Brown have responded to the Irish No by insisting on a calm response so that a problem does not become a crisis. Miliband told fellow EU foreign ministers to drop the "Punish Ireland" language and instead let Ireland have time to think and reflect. Now the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, declares "We are all Irish" and in today’s Figaro, Pierre Lequiller, a member of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party and chair of the French National Assembly’s Europe Committee writes: "Let us respect the Irish vote. Let us examine our own mistakes before criticising their choice. The defeat in Ireland is a defeat for all of us – a defeat for a Europe that has cut itself off from its citizens."
Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister, and the last supporter in high office of federal Europe, also said there was no hurry and everyone should go away and think about what to do next. They have all accepted Miliband’s leadership of hugging Ireland close. Gerry Adams together with Ukip and William Hague has enjoyed his night on the BBC but Ireland is neither going to quit nor fatally damage Europe.
Gordon Brown has shown clear leadership on Europe since he first announced he would ratify Lisbon by parliament and face down the Daily Mail-Telegraph-Sun campaign for a plebiscite. He is supported by Nick Clegg and won his votes in the Commons after some fine Despatch Box performances by Jim Murphy, the able Europe Minister. In the Lords, Tory blow-hards have tried to whip up an anti-EU storm but failed. This morning one heard the hilarious confirmation from David Howell, the obsessive anti-European Tory foreign policy spokesman in the Lords, admitting that if the Irish had voted Yes he would still have opposed Lisbon.
So Tory and UKIP and Daily Mail enthusiasm for the Irish is completely cynical. If the Irish vote No they are heroes. If they had voted Yes, they would have been villains.
Meanwhile, the real Les Dawson face of Tory ideas on Europe was exposed by the rising star of Welsh Toryism, Alun Cairns, who called Italians "greasy wops" on a radio programme in Wales last week. Cameron has refused to dismiss Cairns as a parliamentary candidate and merely suspended him while an enquiry takes place. It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry at Cameron’s cowardice. Which word in the racist anti-Italian insult, "greasy wops" does Cameron fail to understand? But so deeply engrained is Tory loathing for Europe that this Welsh xenophobe is likely to carry the Tory flag in the next general election.