Ireland breaks Europe's democratic code

Paul Gillespie
23 June 2004

Ireland’s success in brokering agreement on the European Union’s constitutional treaty at the June 2004 summit in Brussels is an important achievement not only for the union as a whole, but for Ireland’s own position within it. Jacques Chirac paid notable tribute to Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister), at his final Brussels press conference after agreement was reached: “My officials have seen many presidencies. None has equalled this one”.

In consequence, Ahern’s political standing has been strengthened – both domestically, despite his Fianna Fáil–led government’s poor results in the European parliament elections (part of a Europe–wide anti–incumbent trend), and internationally. He has even been mentioned as a possible compromise candidate for the job of European Commission president, although senior French officials suggest that Ireland’s military neutrality and non–participation in the Schengen border–free zone make an Irish candidature problematic.

Europe in Ireland’s mirror

This connection between the national and European levels of politics is a valuable aspect of the existing presidency system, whereby individual member–states successively assume leadership of the EU for a six–month period. Smaller states have to devote a higher proportion of their resources and time to this role and usually manage to handle it more even–handedly than large ones, which tend to rely more on power to get their way.

One result is a greater sense of identification between the two levels. It can become even stronger when, during these six–month periods, national publics are exposed to European and global politics and the choices they present. The new treaty proposes a “team” system for the enlarged EU requiring cooperation between three states – those holding the existing, previous, and next presidency. It will be a challenge to ensure this works, since the EU needs precisely such connectedness as its scale and scope increase and as the treaty is ratified by referenda and parliaments over the next two years.

Ireland offers a particular good example of this challenge. In two Nice treaty referenda, its people successively rejected the treaty (June 2001, in a low turnout) and accepted it (October 2002, in a higher one, after a much more lively campaign in its favour). Bertie Ahern makes the point that it will be much easier to mount a campaign for the constitutional treaty than for the more technical Nice one. By setting out values, principles, mechanisms and competences, and by strengthening the EU’s external profile and capabilities, the new treaty lends itself to political argument more readily.

There is, moreover, the intriguing possibility that this could include new methods of transnational deliberation, so that the exercise of ratifying the treaty could contribute to creating the political legitimacy it is intended to offer an enlarged, more intrusive and obtrusive union. The European parliament elections were noteworthy for their lack of such a transnational dimension. The parliament’s political groups failed to organise themselves or campaign across borders (except the Greens, who did well as a result) – though they are now asserting themselves in the process of approving the new Commission president.

A time for experiment

The lesson of these developments is that it is increasingly irrational for ratification of the treaty, to be imagined only in national terms, given the inter–connectedness it symbolises and inscribes. Pushing national politicians beyond their Janus–faced attitude to the European dimension of their work is ever more necessary. Would it be possible to hold the referendums and parliamentary ratifications simultaneously or at least contiguously so as to optimise such an emerging public sphere, in which the same issues are discussed at roughly the same time within a common framework of meaning? Or will the cynical game of delaying referendums in uncertain states so as to hide behind another “no” prevail? That would optimise the old suspicions that they are driven by Bonapartist populism. The fact that nine EU member–states are now likely to have referendums should remove the subject from such simplistic reflexes and into the sphere of democratic experimentation and innovation.

One suggestion, by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin in their book, Deliberation Day, is that special time and occasions for debate should be set aside in liberal democracies before referendums. They have shown there is a steep increase in understanding of complex issues after random samples of citizens meet in deliberative polling exercises. They propose holidays should be held before referendums and general elections, with meetings organised in localities.

It sounds utopian, but is a plausible approach to national as well as transnational deliberation, which seems confirmed by the Irish experience over Nice. At the second referendum, there was a qualitative change in the level of deliberation and mobilisation of civil society organisations. A clear increase in understanding was registered by opinion polls.

Ackerman’s model of a “constitutional moment” has been cited in discussions of the Convention on the Future of Europe and the new treaty. He defines this idea as a specific and emotionally charged response to fundamental political experiences involving large–scale political mobilisations. These are relatively brief and rare, certainly in American history: Philadelphia, the civil war and the Roosevelt’s new deal are such moments, which transform the “normal” politics that precede and succeed them by changing its parameters.

It is easy to mock the Convention and the inter–governmental conference (IGC) from the perspective of public participation, engagement and knowledge; but their impact should be judged over time – at least from the mid–1990s to 2014 when the treaty would be fully implemented.

The Irish legal scholar Gráinne de Búrca asks whether the Convention and the IGC are a “Madisonian” moment or a moment of madness (see JMC). She identifies five objectives expressed for them:

  • enhancing the EU’s popular legitimacy as it takes on more governing powers
  • clarifying and consolidating its legal, political and institutional framework
  • limiting and reining in its powers and functions by spelling out competences and giving national parliaments a role in policing the validity of proposed new EU legislation
  • marking the reuniting of Europe after the cold war
  • strengthening the EU’s external unity and representation in a more globalised world by giving it more political, diplomatic and military capabilities.

These are not necessarily incompatible objectives. Some have been achieved more than others in the text of the treaty. It will take time to determine whether the first, constructing a degree of constitutional commitment and community through the act of ratifying the treaty, lives up to Habermasian aspirations to create a new layer of political identity at European level or confirms the Eurosceptic conviction that it is inherently misconceived to do so.

Evidence from Eurobarometer polls show the real cleavage in the EU is between those who identify only with their nation and those who see themselves attached to their country first and Europe too, so that the two identities blend and complement each other. The latter group is steadily growing. Within it there is a sharp increase in willingness to support greater European integration in foreign policy, military affairs, environmental regulation, economic policy, immigration and asylum. Health, education, and taxation are preferred at national level and are the most salient political issues for most citizens. The treaty roughly reflects such divisions, although there is plenty of room for argument and disagreement about how adequately it does so.

A European public sphere?

Such arguments help build a polity by creating a public sphere. The political elites who are building it (just as they did national ones) relate much more readily to the EU because it is more real for them. They must now convince their publics that this treaty should be supported because the EU will gradually become more salient and real for them as well. Comparing this to Philadelphia is misplaced, since the established nation–states of early 21st century Europe are far more developed than were the early American states. The tasks set by the treaty do not require the same levels of emotional commitment, but a lighter, more rational one. De Burca is impressed by the shift towards an external identity through the negotiations, reflecting the Iraq crisis and European hostility to US unilateralism. Such trends have a genuine pan–European dimension into which political leaderships can tap.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s position within the EU has shifted during the course of this presidency. There had been a growing perception on the continent – arising from the Nice experience, from shared British and Irish preferences for neo–liberal policies and hostility to majority voting on taxation and foreign policy, and from a normalisation of British–Irish relations through the Northern Ireland peace process – that Ireland had changed its position in relation to the EU mainstream.

By its skilful brokering of an agreement between the Franco–German and British–Italian–Nordic blocs it is back in the mainstream, positioned rather like the Netherlands and Hungary. This confirms a longer trend whereby European integration has gone with the grain of Irish nationalism, unlike England’s (but rather like Scotland and Wales). The lessons here go far beyond Ireland.

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