Friday, June 13, 2008

Ireland says No!

The rejection of the Lisbon treaty by the voters of Ireland is a huge opportunity for the European Union to move forward in a positive way, and it could be a very good thing for Europe.

No, that isn't a typo.

Doubtless tonight many people who hate the European Union will be celebrating because they think the Irish vote is very bad for the EU, and most of those in positions of power in the EU and and European governments will be horrified for the same reason.

And if the EU responds in the same stupid and anti-democratic way that it reacted to previous referedum votes against the treaties of Maastricht, Nice, and the previous incarnation of the European constitution, both groups will be right. Rewording the constitution, claiming everywhere except the British Isles that the constitutional treaty was largely the same as the constitution that French and Dutch voters had already rejected, and trying to sneak it through by the back door was asking for trouble.

When voters in any EU country do something in domestic politics that the political class doesn't like, the government is forced to pay attention, or they rapidly cease to be the government. However, the linkages between voters and the European institutions are not as direct. In particular, it is fatally easy for people involved in European institutions who have well intentioned plans for the whole of Europe and see them opposed by voters in a country other than their own to assume that they, the politicians know what's best and the voters should be bypassed.

Continuing to fight for something you believe is right when a majority of voters are not yet persuaded is honorable, even commendable if you are clear and open about what you are doing and try to convince people of the merits of thinking. Trying to bypass voters by cynical tactics such as the arguments which Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used to wriggle out of their promise to hold a referendum on the EU constitution is not honorable, commendable, or wise. People usually see through it.

If the EU governments, through the council of ministers, and the commission, were foolish enough to try to create yet a third draft of essentially the same treaty and try to force Ireland to accept it, or somehow impose it on everyone else without Ireland, the contempt for EU institutions among ordinary voters throughout Europe and not just in Britain, will become even greater.

But if the governments of the EU countries take this as a wake-up call to reconsider how Europe works, making the organisation more streamlined and more democratic, and considering the possibility that the concerns of ordinary voters might actually be worth listening to, it could actually be a very good thing for Europe.

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