Europe’s coal-mine, Ireland’s canary

Krzysztof Bobinski
21 June 2008

The stork stood on one leg in the nest on the barn roof, gazing serenely out over the fields in central Poland. Below, the weekender dachistas chattered over their nibbles and wine in the balmy evening air. The party came just after the Irish had voted no in their 12 June 2008 referendum on the European Union's Lisbon treaty, threatening the very existence of the "reform treaty" which an EU of twenty-seven or more member-states desperately needs if it is to prosper and develop. The result was just a day old, but it was that evening's Greece v Russia match in the European football championship that generated the excitement among the assembled guests.

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Many were veterans of the anti-communist dissident movement who had done well out of the period after 1989: members of a new middle-class now coasting towards retirement. The guests were interested in politics but not interested enough about politics in the EU to comment at any length on the crisis that 862,415 Irish people (53.4% of those voting) had brought on the 491 million-strong European Union by saying "no" to the Lisbon treaty. It was just another sign of the lack of connection people feel with the EU - even in today's Poland, which has everything to gain from a functioning union and a lot to lose if the EU was to fade away.

Some of that sense of unreality seems to have pervaded the Irish referendum campaign. The Irish, both safe (even more after the political settlement in Northern Ireland) and self-absorbed thanks to their relative isolation, used the plebiscite to work out their fears and frustrations on a political establishment led by the hapless new taoiseach, Brian Cowen. As the campaign rumbled on, the Irish seemed unaware that their failure to ratify the treaty might create dangers for their fellow EU members in east-central Europe, let alone pitch the union itself into crisis. But the unreality ended with the Irish vote itself: for the referendum verdict has highlighted very real problems in the EU.

Krzysztof Bobiński is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork's eye view from Poland" (25 May 2001)

"Poland's nervous ‘return' to Europe" (29 April 2004)

"Poland's letter to France: please say oui!" (23 May 2005)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007) The echo

The leaders of the EU member-states who gathered for their summit in Brussels on 19-20 June listened with sympathy to Brian Cowen as he asked for time to digest the result of the referendum. He also warned that any solutions the Irish came up with would have to be agreeable to Ireland's partners as well as to his own country. In a word, this was a plea for the EU not to isolate Ireland in the search for a viable outcome.

Against this, the calls by other European leaders for the Lisbon treaty's ratification process to be continued seemed to reflect a determination to bring the treaty into force - which would require the Irish to be persuaded (as over the Nice treaty in 2001-02) to come up with a "yes" next time. After all the treaty has to be ratified by everyone - and that means everyone. That the Irish referendum decision thus reverberates across the entire union was reflected in the Brussels summit discussions, where the theme of "listening" to the Irish verdict mixed with concern over the particular position of the Czech Republic, whose constitutional court has yet to ratify the treaty and whose president (Vaclav Klaus) is a vehement critic of the EU and its works.

For the Poles and the other member-states, the crisis is a very real one, even if their intellectuals prefer to talk about something else at their summer parties. The centre-right Civic Platform (PO) administration elected in October 2007 has adopted a much more positive stance towards the EU, making the Eurosceptic excesses of its Law & Justice (PiS) predecessor a distant memory. The Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, mindful of warnings that some of the older member-states were thinking once again of a union in which some countries would move ahead with integration leaving others behind, responded to the Irish vote by stressing the need for the EU to stay together.

"At all costs we must avoid a scenario in which the EU begins to function at two speeds", Tusk said on 13 June, the day the referendum result was announced. He thus sought to will away the nightmare that his country would once again find itself on the margins of a disparate EU, a point echoed in his comment on the eve of the Brussels gathering: "Nobody can ignore the Irish and divide the EU into better and worse countries".

In other respects the sense of disappointment is palpable. Warsaw wants a more closely integrated EU, including in foreign policy so that Brussels can address several major issues: conduct a sensible and united policy towards Russia, develop a common energy policy, focus on what to do about the next phase of enlargement (Croatia and southeast Europe, Turkey) and when to do it. In addition, the EU's debates about future budget policy and agricultural policy are vital for Poland's future. These priorities will now be on hold as the union faces another round of institutional debate and self-examination about its "democratic deficit".

The wake

This of course is not a bad thing in itself, for the Irish referendum process and result . There were real issues at stake in the Irish referendum and the EU leaders meeting in Brussels might have reflected that, if they had dared to invite the people of their own countries to vote on the treaty, they could well now be facing a similar predicament to the Irish government's.

Brendan Gleeson, an Australian academic who has been following the situation in Ireland noted in an interview with Austria's Profil magazine that "the ‘no' campaign is in some ways a children's crusade of various conservative and anxious interests....generally fearful about the rapid modernisation that Ireland has undergone in the past fifteen years". He adds that the "crusade was led from behind by business interests fearful of further regulatory harmonisation". There is in addition the feeling shared by other small and medium-sized states that in an EU of twenty-seven or more, their voice is neither being listened to nor heeded by the large states. The damaged authority of an Irish political elite which people are coming to trust less and less is but the local manifestation of a Europe-wide phenomenon. The fear that the EU is seeking to impose its values "from above" is widely articulated. These are the ingredients of a potent cocktail with different national flavours that is catching on and will not go away soon.

This is why the EU has to take a close look at what happened in Ireland and think about ways of closing the apparent gulf between the EU, its member- states and their citizens. Referenda are probably not a good way of taking decisions, especially in an organisation of close to 500 million people with a tradition of representative not direct democracy (see in this context the debate between George Schöpflin and Gisela Stuart in openDemocracy after Ireland's vote). No wonder the professional politicians are at a loss as to how to handle a referendum campaign and lose to amateurs like Declan Ganley, a businessman and one of the leaders of the Irish "no" campaign. But if the EU is to survive it needs to find ways to rebuild democratic legitimacy of the kind which (in the older member-states at least) appears to have drained away.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union's predicament:

Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits" (13 June 2008)

George Schőpflin, "The referendum: populism vs democracy" (16 June 2008)

Gisela Stuart, "Referenda: democracy vs elites" (17 June 2008) The test

It is worth reiterating in this context that on most recent occasions when a political leadership has asked its people to endorse a decision about Europe, it has failed to get a "yes". The pattern of failure, from Denmark's vote on Maastricht in 1992 to the French and Dutch votes on the constitutional treaty in 2005, has been consistent. The Irish referendum result has brought it again into sharp outline.

There is a communist-era joke about what would happen when the centrally planned economy had triumphed throughout the world. Well, said the planners - one small country would have to be kept on a free-market regime so that they would know what real price levels were as a reference-point for their decisions. A generation and a historical cycle later, Ireland has come to play that role for the European Union (a body, moreover, often caricatured by its opponents as another overweening superstate that flattens national voices and rights). As the ratification of the Lisbon treaty is pushed through the parliaments of the other twenty-six member-states with little debate, it has been left to the Irish to show the rest of the union that the EU faces deep political dilemmas it must address if it is to avoid even greater crises in the future.

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