Ireland, you ungrateful wretch!

The bile-filled assault on Irish voters who are thinking of rejecting the Lisbon Treaty shows just how corrupt and undemocratic is the EU.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Here, Brendan O’Neill argues that the attack on Irish voters who are thinking of rejecting the Lisbon Treaty exposes the anti-democratic elitism at the heart of the EU. Further below, Kevin Rooney says the Lisbon referendum has re-ignited political debate in Ireland.

How can the Irish be so ungrateful? That is the question being asked by EU officials (in private) and by EU supporters (in public) as the Irish go to the polls this Thursday to vote on whether to accept the Lisbon Treaty on the expansion of European Union institutions. The fact that the ‘No’ lobby seems to be gaining ground – in a country that has benefited enormously from EU subsidies! – has led to an orgy of bile-ridden attacks on truculent, thick and thankless Irish voters.

The message is clear: the Irish should know their place in the European set-up and slavishly bow and scrape before their paymasters in Brussels. Anything else would be ‘extraordinarily ungrateful’, according to one commentator (1). Welcome to the ‘democratic’ EU – where most countries are bypassing their electorates and simply ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, and where the one country that is holding a referendum – Ireland – has been subjected to the kind of financial, political and emotional blackmail that would make even Imelda Marcos squirm.

In order for the Lisbon Treaty on EU enlargement to come into effect on 1 January 2009, all 27 member states must ratify it. So far, 15 countries have forced it through their parliaments, and another 11 are in the process of doing so. But Ireland – population: 4.3million – is the only EU member state constitutionally bound to hold a referendum and put the Treaty to the will of the people. EU officials and supporters are sweating and fretting over the possibility that Irish voters – ‘any clown with a pen’, as one writer charmingly referred to them – will torpedo the Treaty (2).

According to recent opinion polls, the ‘No’ lobby is gaining ground – even though Ireland’s three main political parties, big newspapers and business world are calling for a ‘Yes’ vote. Apparently, 40 per cent of voters are planning to say ‘Yes’ and 39 per cent ‘No’; the ‘No’ side has gained six points in the past two weeks, while the ‘Yes’ side has remained steady (3).

European officials and commentators cannot believe that so many Irish voters would dare to be so ungracious to their financiers in the EU. ‘It seems extraordinary that the Irish could be so apparently ungrateful’, thunders the Financial Times, pointing out that the Irish Republic has ‘reaped greater benefits from its 35 years of EU participation than any other member state’. Ireland has received £40billion in subsidies from Brussels and yet its electorate might say ‘No’ to Lisbon, probably because ‘they do not understand the Treaty’, sniffs the FT (4). They’re ungrateful and stupid.

‘Gratitude, it would appear, is in short supply’, says another commentator. He argues that, never mind the possibility of a ‘No’ victory on Thursday, even the fact that ‘the Irish vote might be close is hard to fathom from a historical perspective’; after all, membership of the EU has given Ireland ‘a chance to diversify its economy’. The Irish should be ‘thankful, indeed overflowing with appreciation’ – instead they seem to be ‘out of their collective minds’ (5). Ireland will be seen as ‘the truculent and ungrateful child of Europe’ if its voters reject Lisbon, says one report (6).

This echoes the attacks on Irish voters when they rejected the EU’s Nice Treaty in a referendum in June 2001. Back then, 54 per cent of voters said ‘No thanks’. ‘The best pupils of the European class have spat in the soup’, spat the French newspaper Liberation in 2001: ‘The blow is all the more treacherous in that it comes from a country that owes its new wealth to Europe.’ (7) ‘Those ungrateful Irish’, said a headline in The Economist, reminding truculent anti-Nice voters that ‘when Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the country’s income per head was about 60 per cent of the community’s average; it is now around 120 per cent’ (8).

In 2002, under extreme pressure from the EU, the Irish state found a neat way to get around the inconvenient fact of a ‘No’ vote to the Nice Treaty – it simply held a second referendum (in a shameless act of political Double Jeopardy) and devoted its not-inconsiderable political and media machinery to demanding that voters make the ‘right decision’ this time (9). Pro-Nice posters reminded the ungrateful Irish about everything they had received from the EU. ‘Thirty billion Euros since 1973’, the posters said, while Irish ministers warned ominously that a second rejection of Nice could ‘return Ireland to poverty’ (10). This time, the ‘Yes’ lobby won: in October 2002, 62.89 per cent of voters supported Nice.

The attacks on Irish voters for being ‘extraordinarily ungrateful’ – both for initially rejecting Nice in 2001 and for even thinking about saying ‘No’ to Lisbon this week – reveal a great deal about ‘democracy’ in the EU. The EU’s bureaucrats and backers seem dumbfounded that they cannot buy Irish people’s support; they find it ‘hard to fathom’ that a people who have received subsidies worth billions of Euros are not falling in line behind their rulers. It is the mark of corrupt, degenerate and anti-democratic elitism to believe that you can buy people’s votes. Indeed, in many civilised, democratic countries it is illegal for political parties to offer voters financial reward for their ballots. Yet, Mafioso-style, EU backers are telling the Irish: ‘You’ve received your monies – now do as we say.’

The assaults on Irish voters also show what it means to be a ‘democratic citizen’ in the EU: that is, someone who is financially cared for by caring-but-faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, and who should be ‘overflowing with appreciation’ for the EU elite’s grace and favour. This is the very opposite of political citizenship; it is a distortion of the traditional relationship between citizens and their governing bodies. In place of free and open debate, in which citizens are treated as adults who can have political views independent of any welfare they might receive from the authorities, we have a situation where those who dare to criticise or complain or say ‘No’ are denounced as ‘extraordinarily ungrateful’ and even ‘treacherous’ (11). This is the kind of relationship a child has with his guardian, or a mentally ill person with his carer – it has nothing whatever to do with democracy.

Indeed, the use of that T-word – treacherous – to describe Irish voters who have rejected EU treaties tells you everything you need to know about the EU elite’s view of the European masses. According to the OED, to be treacherous is to ‘commit treason against a sovereign, lord or master’; it is to be ‘deceiving, perfidious, false, disloyal, traitorous’. The EU clearly considers itself lord of all Europe, and the people its nodding serfs. That it can be described as ‘treachery’ to make a certain political choice inside the ballot booth shows the extent to which Lisbon, like Nice before it, is an already agreed document that parliaments and the people are merely expected to rubber-stamp. How dare the ungrateful, wretched, deceitful Irish jeopardise the EU elite’s already agreed-upon and carefully thought-through plans?

The expectation that the Irish should say ‘Yes’ to Lisbon gives the lie to the idea of equality in the EU. In Brussels and across the pro-EU commentariat it is assumed that poorer countries in particular – Ireland, and also southern states such as Spain and Portugal, and the new Eastern European entries – should behave like ‘the best pupils of the European class’ (12) because they receive generous subsidies from their masters. When the awarding of financial support becomes a key determinant in how states should relate to Brussels, then any notion of sovereign equality goes out the window. Richer states such as Britain, Germany and France can afford a more robust relationship with Brussels, whereas poorer states are told to be grateful, gracious, obedient and unquestioning. In the creaking, oligarchical bureaucracy that is the EU, the citizens of poorer member states are effectively disenfranchised, or certainly are ‘less equal’ than citizens in states that are not so reliant on EU subsidies.

The lesson that many are drawing from Ireland’s referendum on Lisbon is that democracy is a bad idea. ‘Putting the Treaty to such a plebiscite is absurd’, says the FT, since many Irish voters ‘will vote “No” simply because they do not understand the Treaty [and] others want to register a protest against the political establishment that is all on the “Yes” side’ (13). Surveying the various groups that make up the ‘No’ lobby in Ireland, Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England, declared: ‘When there is popular consultation, you get populism, nationalism, xenophobia, all sorts of lies.’ (14) Similar insults were made against French and Dutch voters when they rejected the European Constitution in 2005. The masses, it seems, are not to be trusted – they are lying, conniving foreigner-bashers. Far better to leave European decision-making in the hands of an educated and cosmopolitan elite.

The Irish referendum has struck the fear of God into the EU and its supporters – and with good reason. The fact that the ‘No’ vote is gaining ground shows that, even in nations that have for the past 35 years effectively been bribed with subsidies by EU officials, the EU has not been able to win any sense of affinity and loyalty. It is still seen by large sections of the European people as an aloof, distant and authoritarian institution to which we should say ‘No’, ‘Non’, ‘Nein’; the EU has come to embody people’s bigger sense of dislocation from political institutions today. The Irish referendum is exposing the thin veneer of the EU’s legitimacy and stripping away its democratic masquerade, leaving it exposed as shrill, undemocratic, unequal and corrupt. Who wouldn’t want to say ‘No’ to that?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

by Kevin Rooney

Something unusual is happening in Ireland: the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has prompted an unprecedented national debate. Everyone wants to have their say. But the powers-that-be aren’t happy about it.

The three largest parties – Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour – are strongly in favour of the Treaty, as are the major newspapers and farming unions. Yet opinion polls suggest that a lot of Irish people are refusing to follow their leaders and are thinking of voting ‘No’ to Lisbon. The political establishment is horrified.

The elite’s sense of panic over a possible ‘No’ victory is palpable. Academics and commentators are filling the pages of quality newspapers with expressions of thinly-veiled contempt for the parochial, ignorant, conservative, selfish electorate.

The normally mild-mannered Irish Times screamed: ‘Are we out of our minds?’ The Sunday Independent, the biggest-selling paper in Ireland, published a comment piece on its front page lamenting the fact that the referendum has forced us to listen to voters’ ‘half baked opinions’ on ‘something they absolutely unquestionably [do not] understand’.

The article continued: ‘As one of the only nations in Europe to require that every man jack of us be allowed to express his opinion on this, we have been subjected to a motley crew of crusties from the far left, mysterious and downright mad people from the far right, and former terrorists and their colleagues preaching to us about things like our precious neutrality.’

The reasons why some are thinking of voting ‘No’ are as diverse as the groups that make up the ‘No’ lobby. For Ireland’s fishermen, voting ‘No’ is an expression of no confidence in the EU’s fishing policies. For some conservative Catholic groups, rejecting Lisbon is a way of stopping the onward march of socially liberal and ‘anti-family’ policies. For others it is a way of maintaining Ireland’s identity as a neutral country (the Lisbon Treaty would lead to the formation of an all-EU military force).

For others still, the referendum is a timely way to hold the Irish government itself to account. One of Ireland’s largest trade unions says it will recommend a ‘Yes’ vote only when the government makes assurances that workers will be protected from the impact of Ireland’s economic downturn.

While Sinn Fein is the only major political party to oppose the Treaty – on the grounds of protecting Ireland’s neutrality – a whole raft of new groups has sprung up to campaign for a ‘No’ vote. Libertas, a think tank set up by millionaire Declan Ganley, is demanding more transparency and democratic accountability from Europe. Coir, which is Irish for ‘justice’, is a youthful Catholic group which opposes Lisbon because it fears that closer ties with Europe will introduce abortion and euthanasia through the backdoor in Ireland.

It is true that there are some reactionary politics in the ‘No’ camp. Yet the display of so many different arguments is also quite gratifying in an age when politics is so often managed, controlled and dull. EU-related issues are being debated in bars, workplaces, on radio phone-ins. There has even been a return of ‘soapbox politics’, with heated local meetings taking place in town centres. In an effort to keep up, the new Irish Taoiseach – Brian Cowen – has taken to the campaign trail; every day he can be seen on farms, high streets and going door-to-door asking people to vote ‘Yes’.

There is little anti-Europeanism in Ireland. There is no equivalent of the UK Independence Party or the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Very few people are hostile to Europe itself. However, opinion polls show that there is a growing suspicion of the aloof technocrats of the European Union, who presume to know what’s best for people without engaging them.

In essence, the referendum has provided an opportunity for the Irish people to express their exasperation with their political leaders (both domestic and European) and remind them that they cannot take people’s votes for granted. The Irish Times is outraged about this, arguing that ‘it surely says something about the dysfunctional state of Irish democracy that a majority of voters do not appear to be willing to trust the people they elected to govern them on a fundamental issue of national importance for this and future generations’. Yet it is in the nature of democracy for people to think about things, discuss them, to hold their leaders to account and to high standards.

It is still possible that the ‘Yes’ vote will win. But the debate about Lisbon in Ireland has already delivered a serious blow to the technocratic managerialism of the EU. Many Irish people have re-engaged with political debate through the Lisbon issue, and are exercising their democratic right to disagree with their leaders.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

(1) An Irish bombshell, Financial Times, 8 June 2008

(2) Too precious to dirty our hands, Irish Independent, 8 June 2008

(3) The Irish may want to recall what they owe the European Union, Globe and Mail, 10 June 2008

(4) An Irish bombshell, Financial Times, 8 June 2008

(5) The Irish may want to recall what they owe the European Union, Globe and Mail, 10 June 2008

(6) Lisbon Opposition, Worker’s Party of Ireland, June 2008

(7) Irish No stuns European press, BBC News, 9 June 2001

(8) Those ungrateful Irish, The Economist, October 2002

(9) See A not-so-Nice referendum, by Brendan O’Neill

(10) See A not-so-Nice referendum, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) Irish No stuns European press, BBC News, 9 June 2001

(12) Irish No stuns European press, BBC News, 9 June 2001

(13) An Irish bombshell, Financial Times, 8 June 2008

(14) EU leaders anxiously await Irish verdict on Lisbon Treaty, AFP, 9 June 2008

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