By Hannes Artens
In Europe, the saying goes, the day after the election is like the day before the election (in a system with coalition governments and endless political haggling and trading too often nothing changes, no matter who won at the polls). This saw more often than not applies to public referendums, too. But certainly not to the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon that drowned all hopes for a constitution for Europe in murky, gone stale Irish Guinness on Thursday. Even four days after the resounding Irish “No”, we’re as stumped as on day one. Its future as uncertain as America’s presence in Iraq, the EU is at a complete loss how to deal and respond to the heap of ruins its ambitions and aspirations turned into.
The most counterproductive and most ludicrous suggestion in this regard came from the former Danish foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, who argues that the Irish voted themselves out of the EU and should do the other 26 member the favor to leave. While five seconds of Irish-bashing may be permissible (after all, Ireland, thirty years ago as poor as Sicily, is the very country of the EU-15 – the ones before the great enlargement round of 2004 – that benefited most from EU membership; since 1973 it got almost more subsidies from Brussels than Eastern from Western Germany since reunification), his flawed argument completely misses the main point. If there had been public referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon in the other 26 countries, it would not have passed in a single one. That’s the core of the matter.
In Laeken in 2001, the EU set about the Herculean task to give itself a constitution, addressing such vital issues as future enlargements, weighting of votes in the European Council, the composition of the Commission, increased rights for the European Parliament, representing the EU abroad, you name it. While the US Constitution with all its 27 amendments is about a dozen pages long, the final product signed with great fanfare after three years of bickering in Rome in October 2004, exceeded 500 pages, and the document’s weight would make it qualify as a weapon you’d not be allowed to carry on an American plane. Jacques Chirac, a man known for always having as much political foresight as Saddam Hussein, was hell-bent on putting his popularity to the test by holding a referendum on it (although the French Constitution did not require it) in order to boost his party’s chances for coming elections. Well, he turned out less popular than he thought, the French said no, and the Dutch followed suit three days later. To put it with Shakespeare, the Constitution was dead, long live the Constitution.
European leaders proved quite capable of learning in the aftermath of the French/Dutch debacle – their lesson learned was, never, ever again to ask the people. They re-wrote and renamed the Constitution, making sure to get rid of all provisions that would have warranted a public referendum in member countries. In true democratic fashion, the Treaty of Lisbon only required the ratification by the national parliaments but in one country: Ireland, the feared obstructionist who already brought the Treaty of Nice down, whose constitution required any, even the most miniscule, change to be approved by the people. And the Irish lived up to their reputation on June 12, 2008 – as all of Europe would have, if it had been asked.
Why, my American readers may ask now, are you guys so ornery and unruly? Don’t you want some order to be brought into the unquestionable mess the EU is? Don’t you want our Secretary of State to finally know the number he can reach Europe at – a question every head of Foggy Bottom has puzzled over since Henry Kissinger? Aren’t you tired of being called an economic giant but a political dwarf, why not become a lil’ more American – condemn the federal government to the remotest corner of hell at every occasion, but proudly wave the flag when it goes to war?
Why, the answers to this are as numerous as there are languages and dialects in Europe. Besides the majority of us being pretty fed up with gun boat diplomacy after the 50+ million deaths of WW II, these failed referendums not always have something to do with Europe but with our political system hinted at in the first paragraph. If your voice doesn’t matter in national elections, a referendum is always a welcome opportunity to punish the bigheads in power, who always play into the demagogues’ hands by their elitist histrionics and a shameful failure to properly educate the electorate what the whole show is actually about. As demagogues know jolly well, every referendum is their high day – consequently, the 2005 French referendum was more about Jacques Chirac’s leadership than about the Constitution.
Secondly, our motto, “united in diversity,” has been recently carried to the extremes, to a point where it’s no longer sustainable. On the one hand you got the British and Polish who want the EU to be nothing but a free trade area with any country from Georgia to Morocco eligible to join; then you got the ardent Europeans like the Benelux countries and Germany who favor ever further integration as long as their national pet fads – the German automotive industry, Luxembourg’s banking secrecy, the list is endless – are not affected; the professional nay-sayers like Austria who, although its economy benefited most from the Eastern Enlargement, oppose any future enlargement as vehemently as Dick Cheney peaceful conflict resolution; and finally the French, who still try to work out a way how to run Brussels from Paris without the others getting aware of it. To make a long story short, there’s no globally accepted consensus nor compelling vision whatsoever on what the EU should actually become at the end of the day. No United States of Europe, that’s agreed upon, but what then?
Thirdly, and this matters most to the ordinary voter, has been the negative effects of globalization and increased competition within the EU. Austria is a good case in point. Today, Austrian banks make two thirds of their profits in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, thanks to the Eastern Enlargement of 2004 our economy booms, tempting the German Der Spiegel to ask “Why are Austrians the better Germans?” (for our minority complex-plagued souls that’s as if the NYT had asked why Canadians are the better Americans). That’s nice for national pride and economic statistics, but the ordinary Austrian steel worker wonders over the logic of his job being outsourced to Romania and him to subsidize this process with his taxes being channeled to Romania for improving their economy. I doubt he’ll ever grasp the reasoning behind it.
Add to all this the ordinary European rather associating himself with his local soccer club than a common European identity, national politicians making demands on every co-financed project for themselves while bashing Brussels for every painful but necessary reform, the introduction of the Euro coinciding with an increase in inflation and thus being blamed for it, the matter of the referendum being so complex that not even students of European law understood it in its entirety (two thirds of Irish voters admitted that they had no clue about what they were supposed to ballot for; given our politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s safer by experience to answer no than yes if asked something), there being no James Madisons, John Jays, or Robert Schumans but just Silvio Berlusconis, Jan Peter Balkenendes, and Alfred Gusenbauers around in our political landscape these days, and you get a pretty solid picture of why the Treaty of Lisbon would be rejected in every country.
Now, if I knew how to adequately address this formidable accumulation of shortcomings, I’d be not blogging here, but would dine with Angela and Nicolas every evening. The response certainly can’t be to blame-game the Irish for what is public consensus across Europe, nor to let them vote again on a slightly modified treaty or, as is becoming increasingly en vogue, to ventilate the idea of a core-Europe of those wishing to advance integration while leaving behind the obstinate ones. None of these brilliant suggestions will solve the underlying structural problems of European integration.
In my humble opinion, what is needed instead of shying away from consulting the constituency, the people of Europe, is an extended, comprehensive dialogue not among the heads of state or within the alleys of the Berlaymont Building but with ordinary folks in the streets. Before confronting the European electorate again with a 500 pages tome, we should first ask the people what their European Dream is, what they think our core competences to be, how they believe the EU can help them in their daily struggles for job security, health care, and guaranteeing a better education for their children.
The uber-smart constitutional experts in Brussels may find a way to even avoid polling the Irish on their next version of a treaty, but after the umpteenth failure they should acknowledge that the public is no longer willing to put up with the day after the election/referendum being like the day before the election/referendum. The next day of reckoning is coming as sure as St. Patrick’s Day, and given this attitude, it will become ever more painful and destabilizing.
Hannes Artens is the author of The Writing on the Wall, the first anti-Iran-war novel.