Friday

14th Aug 2020

Opinion

Democracy may be the price for securing a Lisbon agreement

  • "Appearing to dismiss Irish opinion, as the European elites are now doing, risks turning a democratic deficit into a democratic chasm" (Photo: EUobserver)

Let's get one thing straight: the Lisbon Treaty is dead. The states that have yet to ratify the treaty may continue to do so, or, in AA Milne's immortal phrase, they may play ‘here we go gathering nuts and may with the end part of an ant's nest.' It will not make a blind bit of difference.

To enter force Lisbon required 27 ratifications. The maximum number of ratifications now available is 26. We are, therefore, one ratification short of a treaty; ergo, the treaty falls.

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Those in high places seem in denial about this. They fondly believe that if Irish voters are given a protocol here or an inducement there, they will somehow ratify the treaty in some sort of Mugabian re-run referendum. They are also in denial about the size of the Irish ‘no' (more than half the voters out of more than half the electors) and the right of every state to reject the treaty. As Sir Stephen Wall - Tony Blair's European Adviser - has pointed out, "However frustrating.....to pro-Europeans......respect for Ireland's treaty rights is crucial to the integrity of the European Union."

Buying off Irish voters

One might add that in imagining that Irish voters could be bought off - by keeping a Commissioner or by additional neutrality provisions - the European elite is also in denial about the reasons why the Irish - and before them the French and the Dutch - voted ‘no,' and why the British, too, had they been given a chance, and possibly other nations as well, would almost certainly have rejected the treaty. As Irish Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy said "......Ireland is not alone in being unable to secure a popular endorsement of a European Treaty."

Ireland therefore is not an anomaly. She is but the visible tip of an iceberg of contrary opinion lurking below the surface of the European sea. Even among the six founding nations of the EU, we cannot assume now that Lisbon would be popularly endorsed.

For those, like myself, who supported the treaty the Irish result has come as a disappointment. But for the politicians and officials who have laboured for the last eight years to update Europe's creaking machinery of government, the Irish earthquake must indeed be hard to comprehend.

Last Friday, when the result became known, the Commission President Mr Barroso, went on television to reassure everyone that normal service would rapidly be resumed. Meanwhile ratifications everywhere should continue. He was supported by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, as if the combined weight of France and Germany could, by an act of will alone, put Humpty-Dumpty together again. The same bland assurances must have been offered to the Titanic's passengers.

Over the weekend, fantasies of legal sleights of hand, of re-run referenda, of carrying on regardless, of detaching Ireland from the European body politic, have been retailed by politicians of every rank.

At the Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday, the line was that the referendum result was an Irish problem - a little local difficulty - which Ireland alone must quickly resolve. From no one, apart from Mr McCreevy, did there come any hint that maybe the Irish rejection of Lisbon was indeed part of a bigger picture of discontent. Now it is the turn of the European Council to pronounce.

They feel real anger and blank incomprehension. How could a country that owes so much to the EU be so ungrateful? Their bewildered sense of betrayal and their opinion of Irish voters echoed Trotsky when first he saw the drunken mob in Red Square and whispered disappointedly to Lenin - "Is this really the rabble from which we have to build socialism?"

Well, yes, er, actually, it is. The ‘rabble' - or rather ctizens - who voted ‘no' in Ireland and in France and in the Netherlands, and who would vote ‘no' given half a chance in other countries as well, is the rabble out of which we must build the European Union. Maybe we should listen.

The undemocratic nature of European government

It is not, mind you, primarily a eurosceptic rabble. Rather it is the same rabble that in age after age, in country after country, has protested the right to control the legislators that govern it. Its cry is liberty - of the masses against the classes - and it has driven democratic revolutions all over the world. We are not immune.

It is a myth to think that reassurances on neutrality or Commissioners would turn around this Irish result. Such issues are mere symptoms, external manifestations of a deeper malaise. In Ireland it might be neutrality, in France, fear of the market, in the Netherlands, migration, in Britain alleged corruption - but at a deeper level the single thread that connects these positions - and finds common ground with many Lisbon supporters - is the essentially undemocratic nature of European government. Power has drifted to the European level and here voters lack control.

We have known for 20 years that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit which gnaws away at the legitimacy of our European institutions. European leaders have taken little notice. Lisbon made only hesitant steps in the democratic direction. Well, the Irish vote is the people's verdict on this inattention.

So what can be done? Clearly the problem of democracy in the European Union needs to be addressed and not from above, but from below: by small groups everywhere, among opinion formers and in national parliaments. Democracy is not complex. All that is required is that we should have a chance to dismiss, or to confirm, probably through the European Parliament, those currently in charge.

As for Lisbon itself, a period of humility is called for. But many who have some familiarity with the way the EU works recognise that much of Lisbon is essential to deliver the common interest - to keep the lights switched on as it were.

Provided that the quid pro quo of democratic reform were on the agenda, It might be possible for governments to adopt the Lisbon treaty provisions as a voluntary code, a ‘Lisbon Arrangement,' whereby each would solemnly agree to abide by what the treaty says, without the state itself being legally bound.

This is not a denial of democracy. Any new mandated government could withdraw from such arrangements, in whole or in part. If real democratic reform is on the agenda people will, I believe, accept the need for pragmatism. But appearing to dismiss Irish opinion, as the European elites are now doing, risks turning a democratic deficit into a democratic chasm.

The author is an independent commentator on European affairs

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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