June 16, 2008
The Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is a tragedy, yes, but a tragedy in the sense of ancient Greek theater, in which both sides are right and both wrong.
The Irish “no” camp claims it wants a better deal, more democratic, with a directly elected foreign minister and president of the European Council (EU summits). They’re right, the people of Europe do deserve more democracy. But the “no” camp was wrong in thinking that they were going to get it anytime soon by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty.
As a journalist who covered the Convention on the Future of Europe and the Intergovernmental Conference, I can tell you there were a lot of people who wanted a more democratic Europe then, too.
Among others, George Papandreou, the former Greek foreign minister, once called for a president of the European Council directly elected by the people of Europe (as opposed to being elected by his or her peers). A large number of delegates to the Convention supported him.
But the assembled representatives of the anciens regimes resisted and won.
Unfortunately, this Europe that we have today is more of a Europe of nation states than an ever-closer union of Europe’s citizens. Until wiser, more forward-looking leaders of EU member states realise that they can accomplish more, collectively, as members of a Union presided by a directly elected leader with immeasurably greater political legitimacy than any one leader in one country can ever hope to command individually, we will be saddled with the necessity to bow to the anciens regimes, with all the consequences that this implies.
The Lisbon Treaty yes camp is right in saying that the Treaty would have improved things. It would have chipped away at EU member-states’ national vetoes, replaced the EU’s ridiculous, 6-month rotating “presidency” with a more stable and effective — and outwardly more serious — president elected by his or her peers for up to 5 years. It would have helped the EU achieve greater coherence in its external relations by creating the post of European Foreign Minister and an EU diplomatic corps. It would have introduced a greater degree of majority voting in the Council of Ministers, making national vetoes more difficult. And it would have simplified — yes, simplified! — some of the EU’s more Byzantine structures, making it more accessible to a skeptical public. And it would have improved the ability of national parliaments to influence EU legislation earlier in the political process, reducing the risk of wildly unpopular legislation cooked up in Brussels landing in national capitals as a fait accompli.
That said, the Lisbon Treaty’s supporters were wrong in trying to push through a cynical, ‘lite’ reform of the previous Constitutional Treaty rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. In my book, Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is not as momentous as the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by French and Dutch voters, because those two countries were founding members of the European Union and, unlike Ireland, participate in more of its core projects, including European defense initiatives and the Schengen passport-free zone.
No, the real problem isn’t Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
It’s that EU leaders failed to learn from the rejection of the earlier treaty by French and Dutch voters, who, among other grievances, made clear that they wanted the EU to become more democratic and more accountable. Both the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty offered significant improvements over the miserable Nice Treaty foisted upon an unsuspecting public by dark of night. But they were not good enough, and should be improved upon again – significantly — before EU voters are asked for their approval again.
The situation is not entirely without hope. There is in fact a clear precedent for a way forward. The U.S. Constitution initially faced rejection by states including New York, Virginia, North Carolina and Rhode Island, and was only ratified by all 13 colonies after three years of extensive and tortuous public debate involving most of the colonies’ elected leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the addition of 10 amendments that came to be known as the Bill of Rights. Europe deserves the same kind of responsiveness and public debate-not stealth ratification by national parliaments and last-ditch campaigns.
It’s high time European leaders realised that the key to a stronger, more effective Europe on the world stage lies in a more democratic and more accountable European Union, not the permanent defense of nation states born in a very different age.