So the Irish people have said a resounding No to Lisbon. Already the reasons, and some of the consequences, are being debated. I have already seen lists appearing on web sites. They hit many valid points : effective No campaign, inept Yes campaign, fears of militarisation, loss of commissioner, bullying tactics from the Euroelite, lack of information, and so on.
I believe there is a wider issue which fed into this campaign in a more significant way than during the Nice debates. It is this: along the way the European project has lost the people. That is not to say it has been a negative force on the quality of life or freedom. I was a passionate supported of the Yes camp. Europe has been and still is a force for the good. But that is not enough to take people along.
The French and Dutch rejections were massive shocks to the European system. The reasons for No in both cases were varied and sometimes contraditory. People were concerned about immigration, about jobs, about competition, about social protection, about liberalisation.
Clearly then, the Irish are not the first to pull the stop cord. After France and Holland the Union stummbled on. The approach was to add a dollop of sugar and force the matter through without asking again. But the fundamental issue was not addressed: why did the Union loss the confidence of the people and how can it be regained?
I argue that it lost the confidence of the people because it moved too quickly. Enlargement and integration, both distinct issues, happened in parallel and very rapidly over the last 15 years. The trigger for this was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Arguably the Union had to move quickly while before the Eastern countries drifted into another alliance . In any case, the move was swift and within exactly 15 years the Union had gobbled up most of Eastern Europe.
Integration was happening in parallel: the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam, and then Nice all tied the Union closer politically. Monetary Union was introduced, a raft of new areas were added to Union competence. In short, the entire shape of Europe has been utterly transformed since 1989.
The changes are so profound that they have to be lived to be believed. Whether right or wrong in terms of long term strategy, this kind of rapid change is disconcerting for citizens. And arguably Ireland is the country which transformed most during this period. It is true we had our economic boom which European membership in no small part helped to create. The same for dramatic social change in Ireland. Then came monetary Union. And then came very large scale immigration. The consequences of having old certainties swept away so utterly was extremely disorienting. Arising from this is a desire for a return to some sort of stability. In that sense the No to Lisbon is an attempt to stop the train until people figure out where it's going.
Another factor here is the dramatic changes that have taken place globally, again a convenient date is 1989. Since then a number of currents have emerged:
- world power has been radically redistributed. America is the sole, but relatively speaking, declining superpower. Asia has risen at lightening speed.
- globalisation in the sense of movement of information, capital, and goods has become dizzyingly rapid
- after the fall of communism in Russia, capitalism was triumphant and a harsh, arrogant liberal orthodoxy took hold
These global forces are now impacting people's lives in a big way. Companies move to lower cost locations, often outside Europe. Immigration is seen as a cultural and economic threat. Organised and international crime has grown consistently. Huge international businesses have homogenized the high street. Some hoped the European Union would be a buffer against these forces. I would argue that in many ways it has, but the Union and the governments of member states have failed to explain how the European Union addresses these problems.
Another critical issue lies behind the failure to build a bridge between the Union and the citizens of member states. Europe is not a unitary state with the allegiance of a unitary nation. Instead it is a voluntary Union of nations states. In the end, there may be a limit to how much power the people of nation states, each with its deep sense of nationality and particular pysche, are willing to cede to a great, overarching government.
In summary, we have reached a stage where a large amount of power has been given by the nations to a centralised Union. If the Union has genuinely employed that power in promoting the welfare of European citizens, it has failed to show them how it has done so. Where citizens gave their power, their loyalty didn't follow, and without that loyalty the Union suffers not just a deficit of democracy but a deficit of trust and confidence. These crucial ingrediants are essential to confer the legitimacy which the Union requires for further integration.