EU referendum: What have the Eurocrats ever done for us?

By Fintan O’Toole, an author, columnist and assistant editor of The Irish Times (THE TIMES, 11/06/08):

The quickest way to understand the uncertainty that holds sway as Ireland prepares for tomorrow’s referendum on the EU Lisbon treaty is to think of the “what have the Romans ever done for us?” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. On the one hand, there are the equivalents of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front – a fissiparous array of small groups ranging from right-wing Catholics to Trotskyites – all anxious to strike a blow against the big boys in Brussels.

Like French and Dutch voters, who rejected the abortive EU constitution, of which Lisbon is a low-tar version, the Irish seem instinctively inclined to listen to dissonant voices, to rebel against their own political establishment and to scupper the best-laid plans of the Eurocrats.

But the question “what has Brussels ever done for us?” elicits a similar list to the one that Monty Python’s would-be revolutionaries have to concede. There’s the roads, the aqueducts, the sanitation – much of Ireland’s modern infrastructure was partly paid for by the European taxpayer. Even the treaty’s opponents agree that the EU has been crucial in Ireland’s belated emergence as a wealthy modern state. More than that, there is a sense in which the EU has been seen not as a threat to Irish independence, but as a vindication of it.

From the vantage point of Britain, with its deep vein of Euroscepticism, this may seem a paradox too far. How could attachment to the EU go hand in hand with the passionate nationalism that created the Irish state and that has remained, through the Troubles, much more than an historical vestige?

The answer is simple enough: before Ireland joined what was then the EEC in 1973, it was a very small country that still depended overwhelmingly on trade with its former ruler, Britain. In 1973, 55 per cent of Irish exports went to the UK. In 2005, just 17 per cent did. Of the thousand or so multinational companies now based in Ireland, just over a hundred are British.

From the Irish point of view, the EU made sense of independence, giving Ireland a seat at the European table that, for example, the Scots do not have. It also underwrote a peaceful social revolution that gradually transformed an agrarian, conservative country exporting beef, butter and Guinness, into a place that feeds much of the world’s appetite for Viagra (made in Co Cork), Botox (made in Co Mayo), and microchips (made by Intel in Maynooth, previously known only as the headquarters of the Catholic hierarchy).

The Common Agricultural Policy may not be popular in Britain, but in Ireland it bought off the politically powerful farmers, allowing the country to make radical changes while avoiding social conflict. So, if the EU has been so good for Ireland, why are the polls suggesting a real possibility that the Irish will vote “no” tomorrow, bringing the whole process of structural reform to a shuddering halt?

One reason is the treaty itself. Those in the UK who demand a referendum should be careful what they wish for – reading, analysing and voting on a 287-page legal document (“in the first subparagraph, the words ‘Without prejudice to paragraph 1 and Article 14(3),’ shall be replaced by ‘In accordance with Article 11(3)’”) is hard work. The polls suggest that the single biggest reason for voting “no” is that people cannot understand the document.

This wouldn’t matter so much if Ireland still had the rather authoritarian culture that the EU has helped to banish. With the Roman Catholic bishops all but advocating a “yes” vote, business and trade union federations both in favour and every substantial political party except Sinn Fein (which has only 7 per cent of the vote in the Republic) campaigning frantically for a “yes”, those who are confused are being asked to trust the great and the good who understand these things.

But trust is at a premium in Irish politics right now. The long-serving Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, once known as the Teflon Taoiseach, was forced from office last month by a drip-feed of revelations about his bizarre personal finances in the 1990s. Last week, while his successor Brian Cowen was out asking voters to trust the Government and vote “yes”, Mr Ahern’s answers to questions at a sworn inquiry in Dublin were being greeted with open and incredulous laughter in the public gallery. It is not a great time to be asking Irish voters for blind faith in their leaders.

Something else is going on too – a bit of a sulk. For a long time, Ireland was the EU’s little pet. Being poor and small and charming, we were showered with money (about €40 billion or £32 billion) and encouragement. We responded by being model Europeans and, to be fair, used the money to better ourselves. Now, the attention has all shifted eastwards and Ireland’s new wealth means that it is about to become a net contributor to the EU budget, rather than a big beneficiary. Although no one in Ireland says so publicly, EU solidarity looks a little different when the Irish taxpayer is building roads in Estonia than it did when the German taxpayer was building roads in Co Mayo.

The temptation to grab the spotlight, to make the EU notice us again, is strong. Add the opportunity, in these disgruntled times, to put up two fingers to the entire local establishment, and it becomes almost irresistible. But it is held in check by the fear that the Irish, so used to being liked in Brussels, will be written off as troublemakers and ultimately lose the little lustre that we still have. And then there is that pesky “What has the EU ever done for us?” question. The Eurocrats, damn them, have done rather a lot. We are poised between the pleasure of poking authority in the eye on the one side and the fear, on the other, of seeming like ungrateful sods.