This article was published in the Irish Times
Voters should beware the advice of false friends across Irish Sea
29 September 2009
OPINION: The Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty is a good one for British Eurosceptics only if it is a No vote
IT WAS British Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury who grandly announced in a debate in the London parliament at the end of the 19th century that he would "no more give the vote to the Irish than to the Hottentot". That vulgar imperial Old Etonian racism has today been replaced by a crude Old Etonian anti-Europeanism in the ruling circles of the English dominant classes and especially in the Conservative Party.
Far from thinking the Irish unfit to vote, much of England’s elite think the Irish people’s vote is a capital thing – provided of course they use it to vote down the Lisbon Treaty. In London’s club land, in the editorial offices of many newspapers and in the massed ranks of the Conservative Party, there is a fervent hope that the Irish will do the right thing for their long-gone rulers and vote No to Europe.
If the Irish vote No, they will be the heroes of the hour for Rupert Murdoch, for former pornographer Richard Desmond, who owns the Daily Express , and for the Barclay Brothers, the offshore owners of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. The Daily Mail and the Sun , whose rabid anti-Irish columnists and cartoons have been a feature of British "journalism" these last decades, will find nothing but praise for the sagacity of the fine men and women of Ireland if they vote No.
Once such hostility to Europe was the property of the hard Powellite right of the Conservative Party. Not any longer. Half of the candidates selected by the Conservatives to fight the next election believe that Britain should completely renegotiate its relationship with other EU member states, or withdraw from the EU. William Hague famously said before the 2001 election that if people voted for the pro-EU Tony Blair, "Britain would become a foreign land". The top Tory, John Redwood, said the passage of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1998 – remember that one? – meant the abolition of Britain as a sovereign state.
Little matter that the EU takes just 1 per cent of Europe’s income to spend on commonly agreed policies, leaving the other 99 per cent to be spent, taxed, allocated or used according to national priorities. Little matter that the independent researchers at the House of Commons library can find fewer than 10 per cent of all the laws agreed in Britain coming from Europe. Little matter that the Lisbon Treaty strengthens the role of the Dáil, or the House of Commons, or the Bundestag in determining future EU policy. Little matter that Britain, like 25 other member states, has ratified the treaty after lengthy debates in parliament.
None of this counts in the eyes of Britain’s anti-Europeans who portray the EU as some kind of monster from the deep with tentacles strangling the life out of Europe’s nation states. By that they mean Britain has to pay attention to the views of other governments if it wants to get things done in Europe. For the first time in seven centuries, London has had to talk as an equal to Dublin because the voice and vote of an Irish Minister or commissioner is as good as that of his or her British counterpart in the councils of the EU.
The Conservative project is to unwind the EU into a competing bunch of elbow-jabbing nation states. That, in the view of the anti-EU elite in London, will allow again Britain to emerge as a top dog, relegating the smaller countries of Europe to subordinate status. Defeating the Lisbon Treaty would be a crucial breakthrough for this Tory project. Already the senior Tory anti-European MP, David Heathcoat Amory, has said that even if the Irish vote Yes, the Conservatives should organise their own referendum to scupper Lisbon retrospectively.
So the Irish vote is only a good vote if it is a No vote in the eyes of the Britain’s Eurosceptics. David Cameron has already taken a decisive step by breaking links with the ruling centre-right parties in Europe including President Sarkozy’s UMP, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU as well as Fianna Fáil. Instead he has formed an alliance with ultra-nationalist east Europeans, including homophobic Poles accused of anti-Semitism and Latvians who celebrate the Waffen SS as heroes.
Ambassadors are privately expressing deep concern that the adoption of such stark hostility to the EU by what many see as the incoming British government will provoke a crisis in Europe. As the pound sinks to parity or even below the euro, the failure of successive governments to make the case for the EU with vigour and confidence in Britain has opened the door to those who want a very different Europe in which the common rules, especially on social question, are dismantled.
Despite the warning from President Obama’s newly-arrived ambassador in London that Washington wants to talk to Europe as a whole, with Britain inside the EU, the proponents of a so-called "Anglosphere" foreign policy dislike the obligation under the Lisbon Treaty to work with Ireland and other EU nations to develop common foreign policy positions.
Reading the London papers or listening to Conservative shadow ministers or looking at the websites of the well-heeled anti-European propaganda outfits like Open Europe, this desire to see the EU weakened by an Irish No vote is palpable. The decision taken by millions of Irish voters in the secrecy of the ballot box this week will turn on a multitude of factors. Giving a pop on the nose to the Eurosceptic swells and Tory millionaires who are braying in public and praying in private for an Irish No should not sway any votes. But I hope this time, the Irish can say Yes to Europe and No to their false friends across the Irish Sea.