Sunday, October 04, 2009

Thoughts on The Lisbon Treaty Referendum

I am happy the referendum has passed, also that it has done so with such a majority (there's a special section on the Irish Times website with good analysis of the voting, turnout and such).

I voted yes because I felt that Europe, while working to some extent, could be working better. Currently, the European Union is a shadowy, meta-government, which holds some power over its constituent nations, but cannot act decisively - whether you believe this is in the interests of its constituent nations or not.
The benefit of the EU becoming a more solid entity is that it can approach larger trading and diplomatic blocs (USA, India, China) with more weight behind it. And, what is more, those larger blocs will not be able to play the constituent nations of Europe against each other. Economically, and politically, this has both its up sides, and its down side. I believe the former outweigh the latter for numerous reasons, which I shall not go into here.
This post is about a deeper concern I have about the various discussions and debates that fed into the referendum results. I was disappointed with both sides of the debate, and felt that while the result is welcome (for me), the manner with which it was achieved is not.
First, too many voices raised a clamour about Ireland In (or Out) of the EU. This was an absurd argument, as the referendum had nothing to do with Ireland's membership of the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon, and Ireland's need to ratify it, was solely concerned with the running of that entity, EU. To give it teeth, which (if you were against the treaty) might chew up the citizens, or (if you were for it), might protect us better in a rapidly changing world, where the centres of power are shifting. The USA, China, India and Russia are all in the ascendancy, and the old colonial countries like the UK, France, Germany cannot compete alone. Therefore, working together, the old European nations have greater weight in their diplomatic and trade discussions. This also has the benefit of neutralising the in-fighting and land grabs that cost those countries (and then the world) so dearly in the early half of the 20th century.
Secondly, the promise of jobs, economic prosperity and cultural repercussions, both on the pro and anti side, were ridiculous. One must concede that when Intel decided to join the debate, and some comments Michael O'Leary made when he spoke about it, did indicate that jobs could have been lost, should Ireland vote down the Treaty. Perhaps fortunately, we can not know for sure whether this was the case. However, whatever the situation with larger employers, Europe is not going to reward Ireland for voting Yes by creating a pile of jobs, just for us. Everyone is suffering from the economic downturn, although it is clear that larger countries are starting to turn around. Ireland is not starting to turn round, and with NAMA on the cards, if we don't tread carefully, we will be in a depression that could last decades. I agree that our place in Europe will help this situation. But simply passing the referendum on the Lisbon treaty does not automatically grant us a 'Get out of gaol free' card.
To create jobs, and improve our economic situation, we have a lot of work to do. Being in Europe, and Europe not being a shambles will complement the work we have to do; but the imperative is that Ireland, as a nation, take the right decisions and move in the right direction to ensure these jobs are created. Over the past decade, the government has done little in this regard, and now has no choice but to do so. But do they have the imagination and (perhaps more importantly) resources to do so?
The issue of cultural dominance or some kind of disappearing Irishness is so ludicrous, I find it hard to argue seriously. Our cultural heritage and traditions are our own, and will remain alive so long as we practice them: Only the Irish can destroy Irish culture. We managed to survive the English influences of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al. We also managed to survive the American cultural revolution of Rock and Roll and Jazz. Even the great Australian invasion of the mid eighties (Neighbours, Home and Away, Crocodile Dundee) receded. I could write forever on culture, and believe or not, could write quite cogently. But this argument that we are losing our cultural identify as a result of being within a framework of larger countries is quite riduculous, and leads me down the path of psychotic proclamation. So, I shall stop now.
And turn to the question of living standards. My favourite aspect of the referendum debate. Coir, quite shamefully claimed the minimum wage should (then would, then could...) fall to €1.84. I personally heard three accounts of this claim that ran from "averaging the lowest minimum wage across ten EU countries" to "because they sign their contract abroad, but work here in Ireland" to this morning's claim that "as these workers are being paid little, the Irish government would be forced to reduce the minimum wage so that workers in this country could compete with workers from other countries who signed contracts in those countries" (all my quotes to distinguish my tirade from the arguments being made). The basis of the argument is unclear - are they talking about shop workers, manufacturing, building, accountants? This was a stunning tactic used by Coir and Libertas to some effect. Without really outlining an argument, they asked pithy questions in the hope that it would make you "stop and think". For example, "Irish Democracy 1916 - 2009?" (Libertas - question: should it be 1921-2009?), "They died for your freedom, don't give it away" (Coir). The tactic backfired for Coir, when it was noticed that the Herald, intending to display a Coir poster, had inadvertently published a satirical poster, intended to lampoon the strategy.
It's not fair to pin this criticism on the No side exclusively. Fine Gael and Fine Fail posters cried "Yes to Europe, Yes to Recovery" on lamp posts all over the country. Dog piss would have been a more intelligible argument. "Yes to Europe, Yes to Jobs" went another. Blow, or hand, I wondered. Driving from Dublin to Kildare one day last week, I thought if I said Yes to Europe I may also be saying Yes to anything I wanted. I closed my eyes and pictured a mansion, sports car in the front and a package the size of a telephone book, which I knew to be my bank statement. I said "Yes to Europe", but when I got home, I still lived in a four bed semi D on the outskirts of a small rural town. There was a package the size of a telephone book, but it was my new Golden Pages.
The saddest argument I heard, from several sources personally and on the radio, was "Why not hand power over to Brussels - there's no one in this country that can make it work" Whether you believe this to be true or not, there shouldn't be any case for relinquishing our sovereignty. We are still a republic, even if the ruling elite are acting like a... well, ruling elite.
So, what does all this mean to me? I think Ireland might be one of the most informed countries in relation to our relationship with Europe (I think this because we have held referenda every few years in relation to Europe to ratify treaties; this forces us, or perhaps just behooves us, to be informed). Yet, we can still be convinced by campaigns based on misunderstanding, "scare tactics", and general obfuscation of facts. This applies to both sides: whether you were for the treaty or against it, the general message intended to convince you of the 'right vote' were the repercussions of its passing or not passing. This needs to change, especially as it now seems likely that the Lisbon Treaty will come into effect in Europe. We need to start discussing European issues on a European level, and really understanding the place our nations hold within Europe. The EU itself has an important role in this: improving the way it communicates with citizens. But our politicians hold a similar responsibility also. False promises will lead to disillusionment. The arguments made must be more realistic and practical. I hope this is the last time we vote on European political issues from the standpoint of a nation concerned about pot holes on our back roads.
This treaty provides us with more access to European decision making, but will also make the decisions made more far reaching. In a quote from the Simpsons: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance".