Thursday 19 June 2008

I'm pro-Europe, but...

For reasons that I'm still trying to understand, but which are real and cannot be written off, there has been a significant growth in eurosceptic sentiment in Ireland. But wait, I don't mean that euroscepticism is suddenly widespread and deep. Nor that it was the key factor in the recent outcome. No, but it has expanded significantly.

The bulk of the country is still pretty much in favour of the European Union (minus Lisbon of course!). A eurobarometer survey in January showed that 87% of people thought Ireland had benefitted for EU membership. Pretty high. Yet underneath, and beside all this, is a growing constituency of doubt. At least doubt about the future of Europe.

That such overwhelming numbers are still positively disposed to the EU explains why the small but growing group of eurosceptics still couch their attitudes in pro-European tones. "I'm pro-Europe, but". It would still be counter productive, they calculate, to be an all out sceptic. But sceptics they are.

I have heard No campaigners question how much Ireland benefitted from membership. A kind of 'what about the fish' argument. Or 'what about the water charges'. Or, even more obviously eurosceptic, 'we can do most of these things better ourselves'.

But this kind of disguised euroscepticism is best embodied by the man of the hour, Declan Ganley. Ganley tells us he is not against Europe and not even against European integration. It's just that he wants a more democratic Union. But then according to today's Irish Times, Ganley wrote in an article for a US think tank a few years ago in which he "argued against the development of the European Union "in contradistinction" to the US.

(Funny too that the man whose platform was making the Union more transparent has refused to tell us where the money came from that funded his extravagant campaign. Oh yes, he'll comply with the law, which is so weak that it means this - we shall never know)

But look. Ganley's attacks on Lisbon though often made calmly contained a latent hostility that showed where the heart was when the tongue said "I'm pro-Europe but". Perhaps the victory of the No side gave Ganley the boost he needed to throw off his mask, I don't know. But his rush to join a group of virulent eurosceptics at Westminster in a mutual wankfest just after the vote makes it clear enough.

6 comments:

BryanFeeney said...

What exactly _is_ a Eurosceptic? It's a term that gets thrown around to describe everyone from the deranged likes of the UKIP to people who don't like the idea of losing control of, say, agricultural policy. It lumps together a great number of people, some of whom may find the association with their alleged peers to be offensive.

As for Euroscepticism, you can only argue for an increase in Euroscepticism if the European project itself remains constant. However, the European project has not remained constant, therefore we must balance levels of discomfort among the general populace with the change in Europe itself.

The fact is, Ireland joined the EEC. Each iteration of the project, from the EEC to the EC, to the EU, and to the Nice-Treaty EU, has seen a greater influence of European power in the Irish domestic sphere, and a dilution of the government of Ireland's control over the affairs of Ireland. Therefore, one could advance the argument that Europscepticism as you term it has remained constant, and the EU has bumped up against the limits of how much people are willing to cede.

The fact that people don't realise most of this has been ceded already, via Nice, shows up the other great problem with Europe, its democratic deficit.

Before the referendum, Jose Manuel Barroso claimed that a no vote wouldn't derail the treaty (despite EU law requiring universal ratification) and the European Parliament refused to agree to a proposal to respect the Irish vote. The treaty itself was designed to be incomprehensible, to make it easier to pass it under the noses of voters by parliamentary assent where possible, and vague referenda otherwise. At the start of the year MEPs and commissioners were boasting openly about how they had managed to resurrect and disguise the constitution.

After the vote, José has remained true to his word, and exhorted his collegues to ratify the treaty in their countries, in spite of the Irish vote: clearly with a view to forcing the country into a corner. Other nations have been highly insulting: yesterday members of the European Parliament demanded Charlie McCreevy - a very able commissioner - resign simply for not being enthusiastic enough. A junior ministor for foreign affairs in Germany's junior Government party, the SPD, said he wouldn't let a "minority of a minority of a minority" hold back the treaty, and further added that we should demonstrate our gratitude for the money we got, which he implied was wholly responsible for our success, i.e. that we had been bought, and should now do what we were told. There is a marked difference in the way Ireland has been treated, with vague threats of marginalisation, and the the way France was treated after its No vote..

Fundamentally, to ask Ireland to cede power to the EU, is to ask it to place utter trust in the strength of European democracy: as a small country, we have little other choice. The events that have transpired after the vote have shown that that democracy is very weak indeed - the EU is trying its best to ignore the Irish no vote. Why should we cede further rights to an institution which has such little regard for our fundamental right to be heard?

It is this, more than anything else, that lead to the No vote I think. People recognised an attempt to deceive in the nature of the treaty, and were aware of the disparity in treatment between little countries and large in the current EU. This is before we get to basic accountability: in March the European Parliament blocked a request by auditors to examine MEPs expenses, largely suspected to be fraudulent.

Had I the ability (I'm no longer resident in Ireland), I would have voted Yes to Lisbon. I disagreed with the disingenuous way it was being put, but I felt that at this stage we had committed ourselves, and might as well make the most of it. However having seen the reaction since, I'm not so sure. I'm in favour of globalisation, and the EU is an agent of that; but I don't think the quality of governance in central Europe (e.g. the enormous French public service) or within the EU is something the country should willingly accept.

BryanFeeney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tomaltach said...

Bryan,
Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

By eurosceptic I mean someone who is unhappy with the current EU and argues that membership is now a negative thing, and who believes that integration has gone too far, and staunchly opposes any further integration.

I have every respect for those who make those arguments. But what I don't like is where people hold those opinions, but disguise them by saying they are not eurosceptic.

And I agree too that the rapid deepening of integration has been the main factor in eurosceptcism here.

While the continuation with the ratification looks bad after Irish rejection there is a key political problem here that should be acknowledged. That for better or for worse, the elected leaders in the vast bulk of EU countries, especially the most powerful ones, feel that the proposed reforms are necessary and urgent. And if no way of getting Ireland to ratify can be found, then there is every possibility that the other players will take the view that they need to make the reforms anyway and find a legal formula which does that. That would be bad for Ireland but it is one possible outcome. It is unreasonable for us to assume that we can prepetually stall reforms that have such political momentum behind them.

Another way of looking at it is that given the momentum behind it and the painstaking negotiations, and that Irish people remain for the most party positively disposed to the Union, what if the rejection was indeed based on a poor understanding (some polls suggest a high percentage of No voters did not know much about the Treaty)? And what if another significant chunk of the No vote were driven by a small number of concerns which can be addressed in minor ammendments? If this is true, then it is possible to argue that addressing these concerns and explaing the treaty better would lead to a majority in favour. In which case it would be more democratic to ratify.

If on the other hand the majority do not want Lisbon because they are fundamentally opposed to further integration, then the electorate may be faced with the stark choice of staying with the process or retreating. But I don't believe that is the case.

BryanFeeney said...

By eurosceptic I mean someone who is unhappy with the current EU and argues that membership is now a negative thing, and who believes that integration has gone too far, and staunchly opposes any further integration.

In that case I don't believe there are many Eurosceptics in Ireland. Most were happy with the EC, and fewer, but still a majority are happy with the Nice-Treaty EU. I think most people in Ireland are pro-Nice-EU, but uncomfortable with further integration into a Lisbon-EU. Calling such people Eurosceptics is a bit extreme: none of them want to pull out of the EU entirely, a sentiment usually associated with Eurosceptics. You could call them Eurolaggards I suppose, but that too is a bit unfair: for example most of them would be far more in favour of expansion than say, France, Austria or Germany, all of whom have behaved quite poorly with respect to Turkey in particular.

I have every respect for those who make those arguments. But what I don't like is where people hold those opinions, but disguise them by saying they are not eurosceptic.

I think the disagreement comes from your rather atypical definition of Eurosceptic. Anyone who does not want to pull out of the EU, likes the current setup, and is in favour of expansion, is unlikely to consider themselves a "Eurosceptic".

And I agree too that the rapid deepening of integration has been the main factor in eurosceptcism here.

Again I think your definition is flawed: people are no more or less anti-EU than before, the EU has just brushed up against the limits of how much they want to cede. The stories emanating out of Brussels - unrepentant corruption among commissioners and MEPS; attempts to ignore voters by drafting treaties or forcing second referenda; a reliance on polls instead of elections; the sense that Ireland's size is more of a deficit than EU law might suggest - may have increased such unease slightly, but not, I believe, significantly.

...there is a key political problem here that should be acknowledged. That for better or for worse, the elected leaders in the vast bulk of EU countries, especially the most powerful ones, feel that the proposed reforms are necessary and urgent.

As I mentioned in your post on the tax issue, independent studies by Sciences Po and the Swedish European Policies Institute have shown that Lisbon is not necessary to ease decision making: decision making is now faster than ever before. Equally Lisbon is not necessary for expansion: every country that joins the EU does so by an accession treaty, which can incorporate changes in voting balances as required. Various politicians have tried to convince the voters otherwise (making them guilty of the same fear-mongering as the No camp) which is cynical, but also ironic, given that the constitution was born out of the Laeken summit, which explicitly expressed the desire for the EU to be more accountable and transparent to the electorate.

And if no way of getting Ireland to ratify can be found, then there is every possibility that the other players will take the view that they need to make the reforms anyway and find a legal formula which does that.

What legal formula? The law of the EU states that all countries must ratify a treaty for it to be passed. Any such method would be illegal and undemocratic. Let's not forget Lisbon is supposed to make the EU more democratic: how is that meant to happen by ignoring the will of a people and the EU's own democratic rules. It would be an astonishing piece of hypocrisy.

That would be bad for Ireland but it is one possible outcome. It is unreasonable for us to assume that we can prepetually stall reforms that have such political momentum behind them.

Eleven countries promised to vote on the treaty. Four did: Spain, Luxembourg, France and the Netherlands, and the latter two said no. It would have failed in Britain as well, and perhaps in other territories. The treaty does not have democratic legitimacy. Equally, the question of political will is dubious, no-one wants to go back and re-negotiate it, but the FT has mentioned (albeit without attribution) that many EU leaders are privately unhappy at the messy compromise Lisbon has become.

what if the rejection was indeed based on a poor understanding (some polls suggest a high percentage of No voters did not know much about the Treaty)? And what if another significant chunk of the No vote were driven by a small number of concerns which can be addressed in minor ammendments? If this is true, then it is possible to argue that addressing these concerns and explaing the treaty better would lead to a majority in favour. In which case it would be more democratic to ratify.

First off, it's worth bearing in mind the EU treaty was deliberately crafted to be unintelligible after the French and Dutch noes, as a way of circumventing those country's referenda (and they voted on the more readable constitution). If unintelligibility is the reason, it's the EU's own fault for trying to circumvent and ignore two failed votes on the same package of reforms.

Ironically enough, I believe Ireland would probably have voted in favour of the constitution, but we didn't get the chance, and now we find ourselves accused of holding the EU back.

Clarification on the issues you mention: abortion, euthanasia, etc. would bring some more voters back into the fold, but I don't know how many. Consider the muddle over a simple issue such as Ireland's influence over the EU's negotiations at the WTO: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markmardell/2008/06/11/index.html

If on the other hand the majority do not want Lisbon because they are fundamentally opposed to further integration, then the electorate may be faced with the stark choice of staying with the process or retreating.

If that is the country's only choice, then the EU was never a democratic institution in the first place, and we should be glad to be rid of it. I would hope the country is shown a little more respect however, and can continue to exist within the EU.

V said...

Nice use of the word 'wankfest' there. I think there should be more swearing on political blogs. Bryanfeeney should start his own blog, his legal spin is quite good.

Tomaltach said...

I would encourage Bryan to start his own blog. I have profited here from his contributions which have been well thought out and clearly articulated.