‘The plan now is to quarantine Ireland’

BRUSSELS: The Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph reports on the EU’s plans to forge ahead.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Brexit Politics

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The European Union is getting used to rejection.

Ireland’s ‘No’ vote had a feeling of inevitability about it. So too does the ‘business as usual’ response of keeping the Treaty ratification show on the road. While there is bound to be haggling over the future of the Lisbon Treaty, itself drafted to find a way around French and Dutch rejections of the European Constitution three years ago, the EU finally seems to have divorced itself from Europe’s citizens.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, made it clear that for him there was no great shock in the Irish vote. ‘It is not an accident, it is not a surprise. Many Europeans don’t understand how we are building Europe’, he said on Saturday. This message was underlined by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, within hours of Ireland’s ‘No’ vote being announced. ‘The Treaty of Lisbon intends to solve specific problems. The “No” vote in Ireland does not solve the problems’, he said: ‘When 27 governments decided to adopt the Treaty of Lisbon they did not just do it for fun. They have done it because there is a problem and we should find a new way of working together in an enlarged EU. The problem is still there.’

The message is coming through loud and clear: the Irish people just don’t get it. One, the Lisbon Treaty is there because Europe’s leaders agreed it for the good of Europeans, to address problems such as climate change and terrorism. Two, the Irish could only help solve the problems by saying ‘Yes’. Three, ‘No’ is not a proper, or helpful, answer.

Ria Oomen, a right-wing Dutch MEP, spoke for many. ‘I feel very sad that just one per cent of the EU population can sink this deal’, she lamented. Or as La Libre Belgique opined: ‘What allows less than a quarter (!) of the population of an island of four million inhabitants to block institutional reform of an EU which numbers 500 million?’

This is completely undemocratic arithmetic. The Irish ‘No’ counts more than any of the 18 Treaty ratifications carried out so far, because it was a popular vote. The 862,415 Irish who voted ‘No’ count more because they are more real than other EU populations who have been cited as political ciphers by their governments in the ratification process. Ireland’s ‘No’ followed decisions taken by people involved in a living political campaign. It was not another mere statistical ‘Yes’, to be marshalled by EU apologists after denying referendums in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland and elsewhere. On 12 June, a survey published in the Volkskrant newspaper, a Netherlands equivalent to the UK Guardian, found that 60 per cent of Dutch people wanted the Irish to vote ‘No’. Across Europe, opinion poll after opinion poll has found that the majority of people are against the Lisbon Treaty or in favour of a referendum on it.

Hans-Gert Pöttering, the European Parliament’s president, also used the dubious maths system to point the way ahead. ‘The rejection of the Treaty text by one European Union country cannot mean that the ratifications which have already been carried out by 18 EU countries become invalid’, he said. ‘The ratifications in the other EU member states must be respected just as much as the Irish vote. For that reason, the ratification process must continue in those member states which have not yet ratified.’

This strategy, agreed almost unanimously by Europe’s capitals, shows that EU leaders are determined to isolate Ireland and minimise any future shifts away from what was agreed in the old European Constitution and then in the newer Lisbon Treaty. Three years ago, when the French and Dutch voted against the Constitution, the EU faced other referendums in Britain, Denmark, Ireland and elsewhere. Tony Blair, the then British PM, effectively called it off. ‘After these two “No” votes, and let’s be very honest, if there was a referendum in most parts of Europe at the moment, the answer would be no’, he said, at a press conference following a meeting in June 2005 with Jacques Chirac. This time the refusal of referendums in many EU countries, including Britain, has left the Irish standing alone.

‘This time the scenario is radically different’, said Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper on Saturday. ‘The idea is to completely isolate Ireland.’ EU officials and diplomats are keenly aware that if any other countries halt ratification after the Irish referendum, then the Treaty is finished – in the sense that it will be 2005 all over again. If 26 countries out of the EU’s 27 have ratified the Treaty, then the negotiations, where there will be different camps, can continue, albeit on a different footing.

Some time late this year, a quarantined Ireland can be told to agree to new proposals – either for ‘opt-outs’ permitting a second Irish referendum or a special ‘legal arrangement’ to allow the other 26 EU countries to move on without Dublin. The Lisbon Treaty may then live on; there might be a legal fix, there might not, and the Treaty may even fall. All of these are possible options. Only one thing is sure: whatever the legal arrangement, the EU will move on. One key lesson from 2005 is that the EU can operate at the pragmatic level regardless of what voters think. Writing in The Times (London) at the weekend, Britain’s former Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, revealed the bottom line: ‘Ways will be found to make Europe work, with or without the Treaty. For both pro- and anti-Europeans, things have not changed so utterly at all.’

‘The Irish people – the bastards – have spoken.’ That was the text message reportedly sent by one Dublin official to Brussels on Friday night. Andrew Duff, a UK Liberal Democrat MEP who helped write the original EU Constitution, was equally dismissive. ‘It’s such a toxic cocktail of anti-globalisers, neocons, the clergy and Trotskyists. Frankly, we’re in a big mess’, he said on Friday. It has become very fashionable to sneer at the Irish ‘No’; everywhere in Brussels there is prejudice against the ‘No’ lobby’s ‘populism’.

Many ‘Yes’ types have been horrified that Irish people voted ‘No’ because they ‘don’t know what they are voting for or they don’t understand the Treaty’. Jean Quatremer, Libération’s EU correspondent and the man behind the Coulisses de Bruxelles blog, was aghast. ‘Interesting isn’t it? They don’t understand, therefore they vote no. Brilliant.’ Jon Worth of Euroblog wrote: ‘Essentially, people are voting no, well, because they just don’t know… Get a grip folks!’

Yet in Ireland the ‘Yes’ side positively urged people not to read the Treaty, after the French reacted badly to being sent a copy of its Constitution forebear in 2005. Instead, ‘Yes’ supporters preferred raising ‘awareness’ of scary cross-border global security and climate change threats that invite action at the European level. Charlie McCreevy, Ireland’s EU commissioner, a Treaty supporter, stirred it up early in the campaign by saying he did not expect ‘any sane and sensible person’ to read the Treaty they were to vote on. ‘I don’t expect ordinary decent Irish people, or anywhere in the globe, to be sitting down and spending hours and hours reading sections about subsections referring to articles about sub-articles’, he said.

A leaked British Foreign Office memorandum, which went totally unreported in the UK press but did hit the headlines in Ireland, also unhelpfully picked up on Ireland’s turgid Treaty Bill. ‘The draft, largely incomprehensible to the lay reader, had been agreed following lengthy consultation with government lawyers and with the political parties’, said the memo, reporting back on a briefing by a senior Irish official. ‘Most people would not have the time to study the text’, it said.

Such contemptuous references to the capacity of the Irish people to decide on a ‘complex’ document were a pivotal factor in the ‘Yes’ campaign. The truth of the matter was, and is, that Europe’s elites are instinctively uneasy about people reading a text that was not written for them in the first place. And Irish voters reacted accordingly. The EU is not a system of representation or a public authority. It is a set of institutions and relationships that has emerged for the convenience of national state bureaucracies. EU treaties and texts are written for European officialdom, not for the peoples of Europe.

Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Visit his blog here.

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Topics Brexit Politics


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