Ireland’s no vote: Europe is not going away

By Denis MacShane, a Labour MP and a former Minister for Europe (THE TIMES, 14/06/08):

It took hundreds of pages of the Federalist papers, a few dozen men locked for weeks in a sealed room in Philadelphia and a bloody civil war for the US constitution to be accepted. So the little local difficulties in France, the Netherlands and now Ireland must be seen in a broader perspective.

Anti-Europeans are lacing their champagne with Guinness as they celebrate the “no” vote and proclaim with W.B. Yeats “all changed, changed utterly”. Yet the EU, its Commission, existing treaties and directives will still be in place tomorrow. Europe has been here before and will be again.

Ireland’s “no” campaigners accused the wordy Lisbon treaty of introducing abortion and high taxes, and abolishing peat-cutting, union rights and Irish neutrality. Then Alistair Darling gave a speech saying that Ireland’s beloved Common Agricultural Policy should be pruned and Peter Mandelson promised to reduce agricultural protectionism to help the Doha trade talks. The chance to kick British bigwigs and their own former prime minister, now helping the authorities with their inquires, was too tempting.

As the money men, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Unite union and Sinn Fein enjoy their weekend of joy, Ireland and the rest of Europe will wake up on Monday with a headache but not much else. Not a single Eurocrat will lose his job. The bloated 27-strong Commission may even breathe a sigh of relief as a little-noticed clause in the treaty cut its size. The loss of a guaranteed EU Commission seat for Ireland was one argument used by the “no” campaign to defeat the treaty – the first time that Eurosceptics have sprung to the defence of the Brussels bureaucracy instead of wanting it slimmed down.

The big losers are Turkey and Croatia. British Tory Eurosceptics hypocritically proclaim their support for Turkish accession, but know that demanding referendums on future treaties means an end to enlargement.

No EU treaty can come into force until all signatory nations ratify it. But Ireland represents 1 per cent of the EU’s total population and some old-fashioned democrats may feel that 1 per cent does not outweigh the rest of Europe’s nations which are saying “yes” to the treaty.

But the rules are clear. Had the Irish voted “yes” and the British Parliament voted “no”, it is unlikely that Open Europe and Stuart Wheeler would describe the Irish popular vote as superior to one by Britain’s sovereign parliament.

But amid the clamour from anti-EU campaigners in Britain and other nations to ignore sovereign parliamentary decisions, some way forward will have to be found.

So what now? First, the Irish Government must tell its 26 EU partners what happened and why. Secondly, other European nations must stay calm, despite the screeching of the “no” camp for instant repudiation of the treaty. Many countries have voted not once but twice for a new EU rule book. They will be sore that the French and the Dutch, and now the Irish, have blocked new rules deemed necessary to make Europe work better.

Thirdly, the Irish vote must not be ignored. Better a period of frustration than any drama about trying to move ahead without Ireland – Europe must be patient. The EU has spent far too much time this century talking about itself instead of doing what its people need. What a business leader needs and what a trade union leader needs are not the same. What a green politician thinks is not the same as a driver desires. Reconciling these differences is the art of politics, even if it is not as much fun as sitting on a grandly named convention discussing constitutional politics.

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” Yeats wrote, and its complacent political establishment may feel that Ireland is falling apart. Yeats added that “anarchy is loosed upon the world”, and an anarchic bust-up is what many Eurosceptics hope for. But it won’t happen. Europe will go on its summer holidays. Perhaps when it comes back, ways will be found to make the treaty work, or the parts of it that do not need any treaty change.

There are two ways forward. One would be to agree an explanatory protocol to the treaty giving clearer Irish opt-outs on issues such as foreign policy and taxation, to protect Ireland’s low corporation tax and longstanding neutrality. The other is for the EU to take a more ad hoc approach, using existing treaties to promote greater co-operation on immigration, the environment and cross-border crime and terrorism. This will require national governments to agree in the Council of Ministers – but that would leave a majority that is in agreement on a particular policy vulnerable to veto by a single government.

But as the old Irish joke has it, if you want to reach your destination, you shouldn’t start from here.

As the hysteria dies down, ways will be found to make Europe work, with or without the treaty. For both pro- and anti-Europeans, things have not changed so utterly at all.