Celtic Tiger’s swipe at Treaty challenges Union democracy

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Series Details Vol.7, No.24, 14.6.01, p6
Publication Date 14/06/2001
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Date: 14/06/01

The road through Dublin's prosperous southern quarter is flanked by fancy stonewalls that were built at much expense with European Union money. Last Friday, the Irish people - or at least the 15% who said 'no' to the Nice Treaty - cowered behind them in the greatest act of collective self-interest since the country opted out of the Second World War.

It is no coincidence that Sinn Fein, one of the rag-bag coalition of parties that fought against the Treaty, means 'ourselves alone' in English because the 'no' camp played on the basest fears of the Irish people.

On the same day that the British electorate resolutely rejected Tory scaremongering about the EU, one of the bloc's most Euro-literate people appeared to swallow the Little Irelanders' slogan that a vote for Nice meant losing the holy trinity of "power, money and freedom".

This could hardly be further from the truth. Membership of the EU has allowed Ireland to punch above its weight on the international stage and break free from its former colonial power across the pond. But more than anything else, it has brought in money - lots and lots of it. More than 6% of Ireland's gross national product comes from the EU's coffers and it is difficult to drive down any street in the Republic without seeing the Union flag fluttering over yet another building project.

Now that the Celtic Tiger is in danger of losing its generous handouts from Brussels, it looks suspiciously like it has put up the 'closed' sign and refused to admit the poorer folk of central and eastern Europe from dining in the rich men's club.

It would be tempting to think that the Irish voted with their wallets and not their hearts last week. But it would also be too simplistic. There were many other reasons why Emerald Islanders voted 'no' in the fifth poll on EU membership and many of them are entirely valid.

They wanted to give the establishment a bloody nose for fighting an arrogant and lacklustre campaign, to send a message to the European Commission to keep out of their economic affairs and to air widespread concerns about neutrality, abortion and loss of sovereignty.

In many ways, the Irish people made the wrong choice for all the right reasons. They do stand to lose out financially because of enlargement. The Nice treaty is a pig's ear of a text that was stitched together in secret, is about as intelligible as the Rosetta Stone and makes EU decision-making more, not less, complicated.

However, it is also the treaty that makes it possible for the Union to take in the dozen or so countries queuing up to join the bloc and for that reason alone it should have been ratified.

EU leaders are understandably upset with the Irish for derailing their big project, but their determination to push ahead with enlargement at all costs goes a long way to explaining why many people view the Union's institutions with a mixture of scorn and suspicion.

In a statement immediately after the vote, Swedish premier Göran Persson and Commission chief Romano Prodi said the EU would "pursue the enlargement negotiations with undiminished vigour and determination" because the "objective of an enlarged Europe must be realised".

There is something profoundly undemocratic in this reaction. On the one hand, it completely ignores the sovereign wishes of the Irish people, who effectively called for the brakes to be put on the EU's eastward spread. On the other, it descends into the sort of historical determinism that Marxists find so attractive and believers in freedom find so repulsive.

Although Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that the government would "not be coming to any hasty conclusions about the next steps", it is already clear that a second referendum is already being planned to allow the Irish people to see the error of their ways. This is good news for the enlargement of the Union to the east, but as with the second Danish vote on the Maastricht treaty, it is a dark day for democracy when leaders decide that the electorate cannot be trusted to make up its own mind.

Gareth Harding

Commentary on the Irish 'no' vote in its referendum on the Treaty of Nice, 7.6.01.

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