If there were any last, few, pitiful remaining scraps of doubt about the depth of the disdain felt by the European Union’s leaders for the people of their wretched union, they ought, surely, to have been dispelled by the miserable saga of the Treaty of Lisbon, the sly, squalid, and cynical pact that has just been rejected by Irish voters, the only mass electorate given the chance to do so.
From its very beginnings, the Treaty of Lisbon was an exercise in deception, deliberately designed to deny the EU’s voters any more chances to slow down the construction of a European superstate that relatively few, outside an elite chasing power, privilege, and the chance to say “boo” to America, actually appear to want. Its origins can be found in the 2005 decision by some of those voters, the ones in France and Holland, to take the opportunity presented by two referenda to say non and nee respectively to the draft EU constitution that had been prepared so meticulously, so proudly, and so expensively on their behalf. Lesson learned: The voters were never again to be trusted. In future they would have to be bypassed.
Nevertheless, in a pantomime of responsiveness to that non and that nee, the constitution’s ratification process was suspended in the late spring of 2005. What ensued was officially described as a “period of reflection,” but was, for the most part, a period of frantic scheming. Its aim: To investigate how the draft constitution could be revived and, this time, be ratified. Sure enough, just about a year later German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that one of the objectives of her country’s upcoming EU presidency (the presidency currently rotates between different member states every six months) would be to “review” the constitution’s status. The message was clear: The people had spoken, and they were to be ignored. Chancellor Merkel was brought up in East Germany — and sometimes it shows.
Within two weeks of Germany assuming the presidency on January 1, 2007, Merkel declared the period of reflection to be over. She wanted, she said, a “road map” for the adoption of the constitution to be completed by the conclusion of the German presidency. And so it was, but with a clever twist. By the end of June, the EU’s governments had agreed to hold a conference to amend the union’s existing treaties in ways that mimicked much of the rejected constitution but without the bother of reintroducing the constitution itself, a bother that might run the risk of an extra referendum or two.
In essence, a number of largely cosmetic alterations were made (thus the proposed EU foreign minister was now re-dubbed a “High Representative”), and the new document generally avoided repeating those provisions of the old draft constitution already enshrined within EU law (why remind voters of what they had already given up?). Most of the changes were meaningless, flimflam designed to minimize the risk that ratification might be subject to the whims of a popular vote. Meanwhile, the “substance” of the rejected constitution had, boasted Merkel, been “preserved.” Indeed it had. The constitution was dead, long live the “Reform Treaty.” Six months and a few concessions later, the treaty was signed in Lisbon at a ceremony notable mainly for the absence of British prime minister Gordon Brown. He signed the paperwork a discreet few hours later.
For a while it looked as if Merkel’s coup would proceed without too much democratic interruption. This time around the French and Dutch governments were able to avoid consulting the electorates they supposedly represented. Holland’s Council of State, its government’s highest advisory body, helpfully decided that a referendum was not legally required. The Reform Treaty did not, apparently, contain sufficient “constitutional” elements, a ruling that undoubtedly pleased a large majority of Holland’s establishment politicians on both reft and right: Off the hook! The lower house of parliament approved the Treaty of Lisbon earlier this month. The senate was expected to follow suit later in the year. In France, President Sarkozy made it quite clear that, whatever French voters might want (opinion polls suggested that a majority favored a referendum), he had no intention of consulting them. Last November he warned that a referendum “would bring Europe into danger. There [would] be no treaty if we had a referendum in France.” There was no referendum. Both national assembly and senate approved the treaty in February.
As for Britain, that perennial member of the EU’s awkward squad, departing Prime Minister Tony Blair was unable to resist giving one more kick to the country he had already done so much to trash. He announced that there would be no referendum, and so did his successor, Gordon Brown. Sure, a referendum had been promised in Labour’s 2005 manifesto, but only in the event of a revived constitution. The new treaty didn’t count. The argument was, typically for both men, absurd, dishonest, and insulting, something later highlighted by two parliamentary committees, not that it made any real difference.
In October 2007, the (cross-party) European Scrutiny Committee concluded that the Reform Treaty was “substantially equivalent” to the original constitution, a statement of the obvious – but one, under the circumstances, well worth making. Additionally, the committee had a few tart observations about the way that Merkel’s team had handled the crucial June negotiations. It highlighted their secrecy and timing: “texts [were] produced at the last moment before pressing for an agreement.” Meanwhile the compressed timetable then being arranged for the discussions in Portugal “could not have been better designed to marginalize” national parliaments. In January 2008, the Labour-dominated foreign-affairs committee concluded “that there is no material difference between the provisions on foreign affairs in the Constitutional Treaty, which the government made subject to approval in a referendum, and those in the Lisbon Treaty, on which a referendum is being denied.” Not to worry, soothed Britain’s glib young foreign minister, the Reform Treaty would “giv[e] Britain a bigger voice in Europe and enshrin[e] children’s rights for the first time.”
Ireland’s leading politicians behaved better. Under Irish law, significant changes to EU treaties require an amendment to the Irish constitution and all amendments to the Irish constitution have to be approved by referendum. No serious attempts were made to argue that the changes encompassed within the Treaty of Lisbon were too trivial to warrant a referendum. The “substance” of the rejected EU constitution had, admitted Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, survived. He added later that it was “a bit upsetting . . . to see so many countries running away from giving their people an opportunity [to vote]. . . . If you believe in something . . . why not let your people have a say in it?” That’s easy to answer. Those who now direct the EU project believe in it too much to accept placing the union’s future in the hands of its voters.
Mind you, when Ahern made those comments, he was probably confident that his electorate would approve the treaty. Despite a bout of recalcitrance a few years back (Irish voters had rejected an earlier EU treaty in 2001 before being bullied into changing their minds the following year), his countrymen were, and are, reasonably enthusiastic supporters of the EU. The EU has been good for – and to – Ireland, and the Irish know it. But gratitude is not a blank check and that, increasingly, is what the electorate came to believe that it was being asked to sign. In many respects, such as its notorious passerelle clauses (it’s a long story), that’s what the treaty is, but growing suspicions that the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborate con were also sharpened (sometimes unfairly) by the complexity of the treaty’s language.
Ironically, the treaty’s supporters had once regarded that complexity as an asset. As one of them, former Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, put it in June 2007:
The most striking change [between the failed EU constitution and the Reform Treaty] is perhaps that in order to enable some governments to reassure their electorates that the changes will have no constitutional implications, the idea of a new and simpler treaty containing all the provisions governing the Union has now been dropped in favor of a huge series of individual amendments to two existing treaties. Virtual incomprehensibility has . . . replaced simplicity as the key approach to EU reform.
At a meeting in, tactlessly, London the following month, another former premier, Italy’s Giuliano Amato reiterated the advantages of incomprehensibility: “If it is unreadable, it is not constitutional, that was the sort of perception. Where they got this perception from is a mystery to me. . . . But, there is some truth [in it]. . . . the U.K. prime minister can go to the Commons and say “Look, you see, it’s absolutely unreadable, it’s the typical Brussels treaty, nothing new, no need for a referendum.” Amato may have been speaking fairly light-heartedly, but he was also quite right. Legislators everywhere are accustomed to approving laws they don’t understand. The man in the street is not. The opaque language of Merkel’s deceptively crafted treaty was a brilliant device to help those politicians looking to dodge a referendum, but a disaster for those who had no choice but to win one.
But last Thursday’s Irish “no” was a rejection of more than elaborately misleading drafting. As the EU’s bureaucracy has extended its reach deeper and deeper into territory once reserved to the nation state, it is bound to provoke opposition, even among many of those who broadly support European integration. Much of that opposition is reasonable, but much of it is not, and who is to blame for that? The EU’s political class has made a mockery of truth for so long that we should not be surprised that some Irish “no” voters preferred to believe (as, reportedly, some did) that the Treaty of Lisbon would pave the way for a pan-European draft.
The “no” coalition was wide, messy, crazy, sane, pragmatic, romantic, all-embracing, and self-contradictory, sometimes well-informed, sometimes not, sometimes paranoid, sometimes prescient, sometimes socialist, sometimes free market, sometimes high tax, sometimes low tax, sometimes honest, sometimes not, sometimes more than a little alarming (Sinn Fein was the only official party of any size to lend their support) and sometimes more than a little inspiring. Marvelously, miraculously, they won, and they won well, 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent (on a respectable turnout of 53.1 percent). If you think that sounds like democracy, you’d be right. And if you think that sounds like a nation, you’d be right too.
But if you think that it’s too soon to declare victory, you’d also be right. Early indications are that the ratification process will continue. As Jose Barroso, the EU’s chief bureaucrat, announced within minutes of the Irish result, “the treaty is not dead.”
And that tells you much of what you need to know about the EU.
– Andrew Stuttaford is a writer in New York City.