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A hollow victory for the Yes campaigners

Bruno Waterfield reports from Brussels on how the EU’s determination to ‘win’ the Irish vote has damaged its standing.

Bruno Waterfield

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Ireland’s vote to ratify the Lisbon Treaty is a highly significant event in European politics. It is, course, a defeat for the No side and represents dashed hopes for all those who took inspiration from Ireland’s first referendum rejection in June 2008. But the ‘victory’ has also been at a massive political price for the Yes side, the Irish governing class and the European Union as a whole.

Typically, as the result came through here in Brussels, a huge 20 per cent swing from No to Yes, there was the inevitable, and crass, triumphalism. Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of Europe’s liberal MEPs, a former Belgian prime minister and one of the last believers in a United States of Europe, was toasting victory with a pint of Guinness some hours before it was announced. ‘Today is a very beautiful day for Europe’, he said, drinking in the faux-Irish Kitty O’Shea’s pub, opposite the European Commission’s Berlaymont HQ. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, did what he does best: he radiated smug self-congratulation and took the credit.

‘I want to congratulate the Irish people on reaching their overwhelming decision after such long and careful deliberation,’ he said. ‘This shows when we engage, when we explain, we can have real support for our European project. Much more information about the treaty was available on this occasion and I believe this played a key role in helping people make up their minds. I am pleased that the European Commission helped in providing impartial and accurate information at the disposal of the Irish people.’

Reality, of course, had been rather different. The Commission actually generated headlines for interfering in the referendum. One controversy involved the inserting of 1.1million copies of a 16-page EU booklet on the Lisbon Treaty into Irish newspapers on 27 September. ‘Today, members of the EU enjoy a wealth of benefits: a free market with a currency that makes trade easier and more efficient, the creation of millions of jobs, improved workers’ rights, free movement of people and a cleaner environment’, claimed the text. ‘These are major goals. The Lisbon Treaty is designed to give the EU the tools to achieve them.’

This is what Mr Barroso meant by ‘impartial and accurate information’. Other campaigning was much tawdrier. Two weeks ago, Antonio Tajani, the Italian commission vice-president and transport commissioner, jumped on board a Ryanair Boeing 737, emblazoned with ‘Vote Yes for Europe’ logos. Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s normally cheapskate boss, spent at least EUR500,000 (£445,000) promoting the Yes campaign, with full page adverts branding No campaigners as ‘losers’. During the stunt, Tajani was served chicken Bellenaise and wild rice during a luxurious, and thus untypical, Ryanair flight up and down Ireland as Mr O’Leary, joked about his plans to save extra money by removing toilets from his low cost airline’s planes.

The commissioner then stood silently during press conferences when O’Leary mocked Lisbon Treaty opponents as ‘numpties’, ‘numb nuts’, ‘clowns’ and, in a four-letter reference to the UK Independence Party, as ‘(F)Ukips’. Tajani is the man who oversees the EU’s transport sector, playing a key role in competition rulings concerning the low-cost Irish airline, decisions that, in 2007 included blocking a Ryanair takeover of Aer Lingus.

O’Leary had himself, it seemed, undergone something of a Damascene conversion. Last year, following Ireland’s first referendum rejection, he had opposed a second vote; now he was enthusiastically campaigning for a Yes to overturn the No. ‘It seems that only in the EU, Ireland and Zimbabwe are you forced to vote twice. The vote should be respected. It is the only democratic thing to do’, he said in October 2008. The Ryanair switch soon begged a question: was O’Leary only sucking up to both the commission and the Irish government in the hope of getting some leverage to buy up Aer Lingus? This suspicion gained extra traction when Mr O’Leary himself said: ‘Look at my campaign for a Yes vote. One of the reasons I am campaigning for a Yes vote is that our government is incompetent and yet I need to persuade them to sell me Aer Lingus.’

Such campaigning and campaigners can only increase cynicism; it is hardly a triumph for the commission to be associated with such people.

The main cause of the Irish swing from a 53 per cent No in June 2008 to a 67 per cent Yes in October 2009 was the economic crisis combined with naked scaremongering and threats from Ireland’s political elite. Between June 2008 and June 2009, Ireland’s economy contracted by 11.6 per cent. The spectre of the country’s past economic backwardness, high emigration rates and poverty loomed again. Ireland’s entire political establishment, despite being implicated in the crisis and the failure of the country’s financial institutions, lined up to tell Irish voters that a No would destroy their country and wreck progress that has been earned by the hard work of the Irish people.

‘A Yes vote marks an essential step for economic recovery. Only with a Yes will we ensure investor confidence in Ireland’, said Brian Cowen, the Irish prime minister at his final press conference before polls opened. A leaflet from Fianna Fail, Cowen’s party, spelt it out further: ‘None of those who are calling for a No vote, Sinn Fein, the UK Independence Party, Libertas or Coir have ever created jobs in Ireland. People who know about creating jobs in Ireland are calling for a Yes vote.’

The CEOs were mobilised to ram home the fear factor, too. Ireland’s Business and Finance magazine carried out a survey to find that 86 per cent of ‘our 500 top Chief Executive Officers consider ratification to be either extremely important or very important for Ireland’. Paul Duffy, president of the American Chamber, amplified the warning. ‘Adopting an isolationist policy may cause future investment and future jobs to be lost in Ireland’, he said. Foreign investment, especially after Ireland’s domestic property and construction bubble has burst, is going to be critical for the future. So, the stark images of economic catastrophe, underlined by the bite of the real crisis, looming cuts to public services and soaring unemployment leant a real menace to this playing of the fear card.

But scaremongering was not the monopoly of the Yes side. On the No side, both Coir, a right-wing Catholic group, and UKIP, via a particularly unwelcome intervention, sought, respectively, to mobilise religious prejudice and hostility to immigrants with a series of more or less ridiculous claims. Coir put forward the prospect of Ireland’s minimum wage crashing from EUR8.65 an hour to EUR1.84 under the Lisbon Treaty – scary stuff but pure fiction. In a campaign marked by an escalation in the politics of fear, the establishment was always going to win.

Lies told by marginal, cranky Catholics do not have the same social weight as threats made by the CEOs of multinational companies. The Irish people voted Yes with a metaphorical gun in the small of their collective back. They voted for the Lisbon Treaty because they had to; they saw no alternative at a time when their country appears to be on the brink of the economic abyss. One Irish European Commission official told me: ‘Whatever the percentages, this is a reluctant Yes and it is not a matter for pride.’

Ireland’s political class will soon find that lies and scaremongering are not enough to take the Irish people with them in the tough economic months ahead. New seeds of mistrust and cynicism have been sown. The No campaign lost but the Yes camp’s ‘victory’ feels more like a defeat, as mainstream politics estranges itself yet further from the desires and hopes of the Irish people. Ireland’s political class has lived to fight another day but has been severely wounded in the process.

Similarly, on the No side, the failure of any campaigners to make a constructive argument showed the limits of populism and the absence of arguments or ideas that can help people make sense of a world that appears, especially post-crisis, to reinforce a sense of powerlessness or dependency. No campaigners moved away from universal democratic arguments to a series of sometime bizarre claims or sectional pleading.

It is also important to regard celebration or relief surrounding the Irish Yes as an evasion from, rather than a settling of, the real democratic issues underlying the Lisbon Treaty and Ireland’s two referendums.

The question of democracy, illustrated by the absurd lengths to which the EU went to avoid referendums, remains open. This Tuesday, unelected ambassadors to the EU, known as permanent representatives, will begin meeting three times a week to thrash how a new post-Lisbon EU will work. These talks take place behind closed doors. Papers, defining job descriptions for Lisbon’s new EU president and ‘foreign minister’, are classified documents. Can, or should, such negotiations to create new institutions of public office and authority legitimately be a private matter between officials? How can they be decided in secret after ratification and not in public before the treaty was binding?

The public has not been invited, even as a spectator, to a Europe shaped in secret, over diplomatic dinners, in the corridors of departments, embassies, ministries and chanceries. Perhaps Europe needs a president and ‘foreign minister’ to represent a European policy on the world stage. But who can really be sure when the arguments, and the various alternatives, are never made in public? The idea of a real, political Europe was hinted at in the talks, back in 2001, which set in train negotiations that led to the EU Constitution (rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005) and the Lisbon Treaty that followed it.

Eight years ago, Europe’s leaders – Tony Blair, the then UK prime minister was there – met in the Belgian royal palace of Laeken to agree some of the principles that would lead to a Constitutional Treaty that would be the final word on European Union.

Key to the text were plans to ‘increase the democratic legitimacy and transparency of the present institutions’. ‘(Voters) feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny’, said the text, signed by Blair. During the ‘European Convention’ that followed Laeken, one suggestion was insert an openness clause into the new Constitutional Treaty under which all decisions and papers would be public unless a specific derogation was made, in every individual case, for secrecy.

One story has it that members of the Convention, seeking to win governments over, held a meeting with Peter Hain, Labour’s Europe minister of the day. Asked if he would support the openness clause Mr Hain, perhaps remembering his radical, campaigning youth, enthusiastically replied, ‘Yes, of course’. A civil servant, sitting at his side, then, it is said, plucked at his sleeve to remind the minister that the British government did not countenance the idea of open EU decision-making. The clause was lost.

Default secrecy is the practice of institutions that feel unable to represent the public. The EU institutions that Lisbon will make are ultimately weak, whether they are necessary or not, because they are built on the evasion of public scrutiny not political leadership. The problem of representation and leadership is most vividly captured in the debate about the prospect of Blair becoming EU president. Whatever the real likelihood is of him getting the post, and whatever the reality of the job description (not yet written), the idea of being represented by Blair is galling to most Europeans, especially Britons.

Blair’s name has been linked to the job of President of the Council of the EU since the early drafting days of the Constitution, later rejected by French and Dutch voters. He was then publicly touted as a candidate for the job by his friend Nicolas Sarkozy after the October 2007 Lisbon summit that gave its name to the current treaty. The anointment was then again put on hold when more voters, the Irish, rejected the Lisbon Treaty. The French and Dutch were not asked again and Gordon Brown dashed to break a promise by Blair to consult the British. The former British leader is a prime choice for those who want ‘Mr Europe’ to have global recognition factor and a touch of the kind of charisma that is not traditionally associated with the EU. But how strong can such an institution be when rests on the dubious personal authority or appeal of a Blair?

With its new foreign policy institutions and president, in particular, the EU has taken on a very different form to the European Community that Britons voted on joining in 1975. This destination, after a journey beginning with the 1986 Single European Act and 1992 Maastricht Treaty, and the creation of new institutions of public authority, does not have the explicit consent of most European peoples via popular votes. In the founding Treaty of Rome, Europe was billed as an ‘ever-closer union’ of its peoples. The words were removed after French and Dutch voters destroyed the Constitution. Today’s Lisbon Treaty, its practices and institutions, show that the EU is a union of rulers united in mistrust of the people. Europe and European countries need new institutions, especially on the global stage in a new twenty-first century. But they cannot be built on the EU’s basis.

The problems facing all Europeans – whether Irish, French, German, British or whatever – require political leadership and debate not the referendum evasions, dishonesty, scaremongering and secrecy that have characterised the birth of the new union’s Lisbon Treaty.

Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and author of E-Who? Politics Behind Closed Doors published by the Manifesto Club. He is also chairing the debate The Rise of Populism in Europe: we the people or them the mob? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 31 October 2009. Buy tickets here.

Topics World

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