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Long Dark Night of the Europhile Soul

Only read this, if you have the faintest idea about the Lisbon Treaty. Really, it’s better for both of us this way.

In Brussels, they think all Irish people are like de Valera who, I believe, said that he only needed to look into his heart to know what the people of Ireland were thinking. At coffee breaks at every recent event, people here would break the ice by asking me what I thought that the outcome of the Irish referendum on the Treaty would be. I would look into my heart and confidently predict a victory for the yes side by a narrow margin. It turns out that I am not de Valera.

Ireland joined the EU* in 1973 and my father started coming to Brussels for expert meetings shortly thereafter. From about 1980, every family holiday would be preceeded by a trip to Brussels. We would camp in Heverlee outside Brussels and drop him in every day for his meeting, my mother gaily navigating the Brussels ring with the three children squabbling in the back. Once his meetings were over, we would pack up the tent and head off to France which was generally sunnier and more congenial, though I still have fond memories of the lego and table tennis in Ter Munck. I suspect he was the only committee member staying in a tent. We used to go and join him for lunch in the Rotonde occasionally. This was the restaurant in the basement of the Berlaymont which is now, alas, defunct. The glamour, the excitement: self-service food, pillars, tap water.

My father became good friends with many members of his committee and they stayed in contact over the years. I even did a language exchange with a daughter of one of the committee members (unsuccessful, her English was much better than my German). My father was still coming to meetings when I started working in Brussels in 1993 and, when he came over, he would meet me for a drink in the Metropole and slip me some very welcome cash.

When I was a student, I was funded under the Erasmus programme to study for a semester in Italy. Almost all of my professional life has, in one way or another, been related to EU affairs. I suppose that I could hardly be called a neutral observer. I love the EU. I suspect that I am a bit of a minority but there it is.

When Irish women were barred from working after marriage in the civil service (and in the banks, just because they wanted to join in) who made them stop? Well, yes, it was the EU. When the Irish Government on accession sought a derogation from this draconian provision and the wretched equal pay legislation which was going to bring the country to its knees who said you must be bloody joking? Well, yes, it was the EU.

When the Irish economy was going down the toilet in 1987 and unemployment was spiralling out of control and the IMF was on the doorstep, who do you think gave us a great deal of money to spend on turning the country round? Well, yes, it was the EU.

When Northern Ireland was a basket case who pumped money into co-operation programmes through the PEACE programme? Well, yes, it was the EU.

When the divided continent of Europe was reunited, when we realised that, actually, having half of the continent behind an iron curtain was like having lost a limb, who gave assistance in money and governance to those countries so that now they are starting to do better and better? Well, yes, it was the EU.

And how come we can work anywhere in Europe and we have a single market? How come Europe can punch its weight in the WTO negotiations? Well, yes, that’s the EU too.

I believe in the EU as a potent force for good for Europeans. I believe it brings us together and helps us to learn about each other. I believe that Ireland is much closer to Berlin than to Boston.

So, the Lisbon Treaty. Well, it wasn’t a particularly clear or lovable treaty. Jon Worth has a copy of the Jason O’Mahony summary on his blog and for my money, that’s probably the best explanation of the contents. Not that anyone cares now.

The purpose of the Treaty was to finally put a close to the institutional (and very dull) angst which the EU has been going through since some time before its expansion to 27 member states. That was broadly it. It was also supposed to answer the Kissinger question, “Who do I call, if I want to speak to Europe?” Frankly, I’m not sure it provided an answer to that. Was it ideal? No, it was a compromise between 27 sovereign states. Was it the best agreement that we were ever likely to get on this subject? Oh yes, I would think so.

Why did Ireland vote no? Looking into my heart has proved ineffective in finding an answer to Irish questions, but let me share my suspicions with you.

Firstly, I suspect the press. The Irish Times which, as you know, has a place close to my heart, had an editorial on Lisbon last weekend entitled “Are we out of our collective minds?” Now, while I agreed wholeheartedly with every word written, I couldn’t help but feel that the tone was a teensy bit unhelpful. I can’t help wondering whether this was also the tone of the political parties, almost all of whom strongly advocated a yes vote. Then, the British media which is almost uniformly eurosceptic is widely available in Ireland and, in some cases, produces Irish editions (Irish Sun anyone?). I have no idea what these papers’ stance was on the referendum but you know what? I can make a good guess. I believe British coverage of EU issues is hugely biased and I don’t believe that this is a fault of the Irish press (I can tell because Irish coverage of EU matters is invariably crushingly dull). I really suspect the British media of stirring up the sovreignity issue which is not something that I have been aware of as a particular concern in the past.

Secondly, people didn’t know what the Treaty was about. I saw the text of the referendum question. Dear God in heaven, that was complex. But, you know what? There was a lot of information out there. I’m not saying it was a particularly straightforward message to understand but certainly a lot of time and effort was spent trying to explain it all. If you wanted to know, you could have found out. But people couldn’t be bothered, they didn’t care enough, they wanted to give the government a bloody nose.

Thirdly, there was the ludicrous scaremongering the European super-state, abortion, prostitution, army, locking up your three year olds bringing in the death penalty end of things. The problem for the yes campaign seems to have been that they spent so much time refuting the more outlandish claims of the no campaign that they had very little time to explain the (oh so dull) merits of voting yes.

So, I reckon, that’s it. Oh yeah, of course, fourthly the farmers were pretty annoyed about Mandelson’s position on the WTO negotiations, that probably didn’t help much either. Particularly since farmers always vote.

I’m gutted. I was really looking forward to the end of the institutional debate (yeah, yeah, I should get out more) and the EU getting to grips with the substantive issues which people actually understand. I believe that a stronger EU is vital for Ireland, vital to ensure that we maintain our position in this globalised world. And I trust the EU to deliver that, it’s not a bunch of faceless bureaucrats, well, yes it is, but they’ve done a fantastic job, the EU has achieved so much but it needs to do even more. And, wretchedly, it’s our fault that we’re going to have a weak, inward-looking, demoralised EU for the foreseeable future. More soul-searching, more “we must communicate with the citizen” (I mean nothing wrong with that per se, just that the citizen doesn’t seem to care), less actually doing things. Mr. Waffle points out that nobody has died and they will hammer out a solution based on the European model: peace through boredom. This is strangely uncomforting.

Any europhiles out there feeling sunny? Please tell me the upside.

*Yes, yes, I know the EEC as it then was.

6 Responses to “Long Dark Night of the Europhile Soul”

  1. eimear Says:

    You’re right that there wasn’t enough selling of the positive reasons to vote yes, but at the same time I don’t feel that there was nearly enough refuting of the more outlandish claims. We should have heard a lot more from assorted Government and non-Government ministers swiftly debunking this rubbish.

    They should also have hammered home, before Sinn Fein started claiming that we could get “a better deal”, that we had got a very good deal having held the Presidency at a crucial time and we’d better take this. People didn’t even understand that losing a Commissioner was already a done deal – the first time I heard any Yes person mention this was Brian Cowen on the last day of campaigning.

    RTÉ and the Irish Times seem to have felt obliged to be completely evenhanded so that every Yes speaker or article was balanced off with a No one. People really got the impression that the two sides were of equal merit.

  2. BroLo Says:

    Are you sure that you looked into your heart and not your head? Your arguments are eminently rational and reasonable. As we know all too well on this side of the pond, that’s not enough to win the vote.

  3. eimear Says:

    Of course there’s no such thing as a non-Government minister, I suppose I meant politicians.

  4. Daddy's Little Demon Says:

    While I largely agree, it’s been clear since Nice that the project has got ahead of the people it’s supposed to serve. The Union needed – then and now – a period of consolidation, rather than yet more inter-governmental conferencing and another treaty. People have referendum fatigue and they simply don’t understand how every single treaty can be The Most Important Thing In The World, Ever.

    Personally I have misgivings about member states losing more competencies to the Commission having seen the contempt Commission officials often have for representatives of national governments (though not always without reason). The Commission’ s raison d’etre is to further integration and this means it is relentless in accruing powers to itself – greater oversight by and accountability to member states has been necessary for years. And it would do a lot of Commission officials no harm at all to spend a few years back working for their national government – just to remind them that the institutions exist to further the interests of member countries – not the other way around.

  5. Peggy Says:

    You hear it all the time: Brussels is too far away from the citizens.
    People don’t realize the improvements the EU brought to their daily lives. Maybe we were too spoiled and we don’t know. The past, the wars, all that is history. We tend to take everything for granted and new decisiosn from Brussels could only be a threat.
    I believe that if we were to hold referenda in all the EU countries, the outcome of most of them would be the same as in Ireland.
    It revolves me, really. But I’m too sensitive.
    I was an Erasmus student myself. I don’t work for the EU institutions but very close to them. They could really use some of the improvements from the Lisbon Treaty.
    I read the Spoofers Guide and I found it a good laugh, too.

  6. nicola Says:

    ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity’

    Yeats may not have been ‘down with’ the people of Ireland like de Valera, but he knew about referendum voting!

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