The Ache For Empire

The Citizen: Issue 1
November/December 2008

Author: Robert Ballagh

The Democratic Deficit

The almost immediate Mugabe-like response by the European elites to the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish electorate, or, as President Sarkozy of France rather dismissively put it, ‘the Irish incident’, exposed, once again, the democratic deficit that lies at the heart of this European project. Their decision to ignore the democratic choice made by the Irish people and to push ahead with the ratification process fully vindicates not only those who decided to campaign against this troublesome treaty but also the majority of the electorate who determined to reject it. Tragically, these European elites seem incapable of taking No for an answer. For example, after we in Ireland had the temerity to vote No to the Nice treaty, we were simply sent back to vote again and told to return with the ‘right’ answer the next time. On that occasion, the Irish government, instead of respecting the Irish vote, colluded with the European establishment in overturning the original democratic decision made by the Irish people.

Sadly, the Irish political establishment seems hell bent on pursuing the same unprincipled tactic once again. Even before the Irish referendum result was announced, Barroso, the President of the Commission, was able to announce, with obvious relief, that in the course of a phone conversation, Brian Cowen had assured him that the treaty was not dead. The manifest comfort that this craven admission provided brought to mind the hysterical cry by Dr. Frankenstein, ‘it’s alive!’, when his creature twitched after an electric charge was passed through its misshapen body. Make no mistake about it, if Brian Cowen had fully respected the decision of the Irish people and, as a result, had said that the Lisbon Treaty was dead and that ratification should cease, then, in strictly legal terms, the Treaty would have been dead in the water. The British government clearly understood this when David Miliband stated that it was up to Brian Cowen to pronounce the ‘last rites’ over the Lisbon Treaty. Unfortunately, the Irish government, in spite of professing respect for the Irish vote, immediately lined up with the European establishment in providing a life-support system for this ailing treaty.

One cannot help questioning the motivation for all of this feverish activity. Let’s face it, the legal terms governing the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty are quite clear: each member state must ratify the treaty and if any state fails to do so the treaty cannot come into force. So, when Ireland rejected the treaty, according to both legal and democratic norms the ratification process should have ceased, but, as we know, this did not happen. Instead, the European elites frantically urged those governments that had not already ratified to press ahead with the process. In my opinion, there can be only one possible explanation for this course of action: determination to create a situation where maximum pressure can be brought to bear on the Irish people to repudiate their original decision and, as with the Nice treaty, to get them to go out and vote again and to vote the ‘right’ way this time. During the referendum campaign, we heard time and time again the mantra that if the treaty were to be rejected there was no ‘Plan B’. Of course, this was a lie. There was always a ‘Plan B’, and this very plan was instantly put in place once the Irish referendum result was announced. Put simply, the strategy is to ignore the democratic decision of the Irish people and to bully and cajole them into voting again in another referendum. What a perversion of democracy!

Allow me to paint the following scenario. Towards the end of this year, or possibly early next year, there will be a crisis summit in Brussels to deal with the ‘Irish situation’. The meetings and negotiations will be both lengthy and difficult, but, at an appropriate moment, an exhausted Brian Cowen will emerge, clutching a piece of paper rather like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich, and announce a diplomatic triumph. He will tell us that the government has obtained everything it wanted in terms of declarations and promises, and, as a consequence of this breakthrough, he will call for a new referendum and urge the Irish people to support an unchanged Lisbon Treaty. At the same time, the European establishment will declare that, since the Irish government has secured the best deal possible, the Irish people should now go ahead and ratify the treaty. However, they will make it quite clear that failure to do so will result in Ireland being cast into ‘outer darkness’.

Of course, none of this can happen without the full collaboration of the Irish government, the Irish political establishment and the national media. Do I expect the Irish establishment to take a stand and to defend Irish democracy? Do I what?!

When the French and the Dutch rejected the EU Constitution, it became clear to the other EU States that Chirac did not dare submit exactly the same Treaty to referendum in France again, so the European Council of Presidents and Prime Ministers decided to introduce a ‘period of reflection’ on the Constitution; this resulted in an end to the ratification process and the EU Constitution itself.

At the time, the European elites promised to respect the choice made by the French and the Dutch, to allow a period of reflection, and to establish a consultation process on the way forward. Tragically, all of this proved to be little more than ‘smoke and daggers’, as our ex-Taoiseach would have put it, and, rather than take on board the concerns of the French and the Dutch, they decided instead to plough ahead with the same rejected package. Their tactic, essentially a confidence trick, was to convert the rejected constitution into another document by simply altering its name and by making minimal cosmetic changes to its content. Certainly, many politicians were of the view that little had changed. Bertie Ahern remarked that ‘ninety per cent of it [the EU constitution] is still there’, while Dermot Ahern said that ‘the substance of what we agreed in 2004 has been retained, what has gone is the term constitution’. In my opinion, this comment is of particular significance, for, as Giuliano Amato, the former Italian Prime Minister, admitted, ‘the good thing about not calling it a constitution is that no one can call for a referendum on it’. Certainly, former French President Giscard D’Estaing was of the same mind when he confessed that ‘the Treaty of Lisbon is the same as the rejected constitution. Only the format has been changed to avoid referendums’.

In retrospect, one can only marvel at how the European elites, taking advantage of a necessary response to the failed referendums, quickly forged a new plan for the way forward – a plan with the added bonus of obviating the necessity of holding referendums. In my opinion, this represents a truly audacious strategy, perhaps unique in political history, in that it involves disenfranchising almost 500 million people! Unfortunately for the European elites, however, there remained one problem: Ireland. Because of the legal case taken by Raymond Crotty, Irish citizens have a constitutional right to vote by referendum on issues like EU treaties, so, in spite of all their machinations, the flame of democracy, though extinguished in the rest of Europe, still flickers in Ireland. Even so, it’s worth noting that if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified that democratic right will disappear, as the new treaty will not require any further likely amendments to be approved by referendum, (under Lisbon, this can be done by unanimity).

Without doubt, the European elites are both contemptuous of and irritated by any involvement by the peoples of Europe in the decision-making process. According to President Sarkozy, ‘France was just ahead of all the other countries in voting no [to the EU Constitution]; it would happen in all other member states if they have a referendum; there is a cleavage between people and governments and a referendum now would bring Europe into danger.’

A Radical New Departure

Even the mildly curious must wonder what it is about the Lisbon Treaty that causes the European establishment to lose all sense of proportion in its frantic efforts to keep this unloved treaty alive. I, for one, am unable to detect any adequate explanation in much of the old guff we heard during the campaign about a ‘better Europe’ or a ‘more efficient Europe’. In truth, none of this stuff can account for their readiness to set aside all legal and democratic constraints in their ruthless defence of this treaty. No, I believe there must be an alternative explanation.

During the course of the referendum campaign, the phrase ‘an unprecedented grab for power’ surfaced a few times as a description of the Lisbon Treaty, but, unfortunately, at the time, no one really developed this proposition; nonetheless, I believe that it provides us with a hint as to why the European elites are so determined to force through this treaty, come what may.

One argument frequently raised by some on the Yes side suggested that the Lisbon Treaty was ‘no big deal’, that it was simply a gathering together of previous treaties and, as a consequence, represented nothing more than a modest reform package. I’m afraid nothing could be further from the truth. Make no mistake about it, the Lisbon Treaty is a truly radical, even revolutionary, document!

To understand this, one needs to appreciate that what we call the European Union today is not a state. It is not even a legal or corporate entity in its own right. However, if Lisbon is ratified, all this will change. In strictly legal terms, an entirely new European Union will be established. This will be a union in the constitutional form of a European federal state. The European Union of which our countries are currently members will cease to exist and will be replaced by this legally new European Union, which will be separate from and superior to its member states, just as the US is separate from and superior to, say, Kansas or Louisiana. By transforming the legal character of the Union, the Lisbon Treaty will transform the meaning of Union citizenship. Presently, each and every one of us is, first and foremost, a citizen of our own country, in our case Ireland; and, in strictly legal terms, any individual relationship with the EU amounts to no more than having a purple cover on our passport. However, if Lisbon is ratified, all this will change. Under the treaty regulations, every Irish person will become firstly a citizen of the European Union and secondly an Irish citizen. This is new and represents a radical shift in the relationship between the individual citizen and the European Union. For example, the duty of obedience to the Union’s laws and loyalty to the Union’s institutions attaching to this citizenship will be superior to those attaching to the citizenship of one’s own country, and, even though member states will retain their own national constitutions, these will be subordinate to the new Union treaty regulations. As such, they will no longer be constitutions of sovereign states in their own right, but instead will resemble the constitutions of various local states in the US, which, of course, are subordinate to the federal US constitution.

Those who support the Lisbon Treaty speak about the need to reform the EU institutions in order to cope with an enlarged Union, and, certainly, I accept the validity of that particular argument. However, I also feel that this requirement could have provided a unique opportunity to address some of the serious issues that bedevil the European project: issues like the democratic deficit, the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, and the disconnect between the institutions and the peoples of Europe. Did those who drafted the Lisbon Treaty address any of these critical defaults in their reform package? I’m afraid not.

For a start, let us look at the European Commission. This is an unelected, opaque, and unaccountable body, which currently holds practically all executive authority in the European Union. Yet, rather than address the autocratic nature of this all-powerful institution, the Lisbon Treaty contrives to further enhance its power. Under Lisbon, the Commission will continue to have a monopoly role in proposing EU laws, but, this time, it will have a significantly wider range of measures to propose. In effect, it will gain power to propose laws, binding on us, in thirty-two new policy areas, including crime, justice, policing, public services, immigration, energy, transport, tourism, sport, culture, and public health. At the moment 80% of all laws adopted by national parliaments come from Brussels. After Lisbon, this percentage can only rise.

The Lisbon Treaty also proposes to diminish any possible accountability that the Commission might have by reducing its size. In Ireland’s case, this will result in us having no voice on the Commission for five out of every fifteen years. This means that for one third of the time we could find ourselves bound by EU laws, superior to Irish law, proposed by a Commission in which no Irish person would have been involved in the decision-making process. Furthermore, Lisbon plans to abolish the right of the Irish government to nominate a commissioner and to replace this prerogative with the lesser right to merely make ‘suggestions’. Another worrying aspect of the Lisbon reform package is the proposal to base EU law-making primarily on population size. This will double Germany’s say on the Council of Ministers from 8% to 17%, and France will go from 8% to 13%. Ireland’s voting weight, on a population basis, will be more than halved to 1%. Without question, this represents an unprincipled grab for power by the big states for control of the new European Union.

The only part of the European superstructure that is elected by the peoples of Europe is the European Parliament, and under Lisbon this will not change. In fact, the parliament will enjoy an increase in its powers, albeit at the expense of national parliaments, which will allow elected members to have more ‘influence’ on the creation of EU laws, but, importantly, they still will not have extensive legislative power. If the European Parliament still cannot initiate legislation, the ‘raison d’étre’ of any normal democratic parliament, then, unfortunately, it must be judged as nothing more than a ‘talking shop’, and a very expensive one at that!

Supporters of the Lisbon Treaty frequently cite the necessity of speaking with one powerful voice so that the Union can take up a more significant role on the world stage. The reform package sees this new voice for Europe being articulated through an enhanced Presidency of the Council of Ministers and a new EU Foreign and Defence Ministry. At the moment, President Barroso is simply the representative of the European Commission. However, under Lisbon all this will change. Because of the transformed legal character of the new Union, the new President will now become the representative of all the citizens of Europe, yet, unbelievably, there will be no requirement whatsoever for an election to take place to fill this highly important post. It seems incredible that, unlike, say, France or America, where the people can vote for the candidate of their choice for president, in the European Union, with a population of 500 million, the people will have no say. Also, the people will have no say in the appointment of the Union’s ‘High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’, or, as this person will probably be better known, the EU Foreign Minister. This unelected bureaucrat will be in charge of an enhanced and fully-fledged ministry, which, in due course, will appoint a large common diplomatic corps and will establish EU embassies worldwide. Can you imagine the impact that this development will have on the existing embassies of small member states? For example, when an EU embassy with a real EU ambassador is established in Washington, the only possible surviving function for the Irish embassy will be to hand out tourist brochures!

Similarly, when the EU appoints a mission to the United Nations, inevitably the Irish mission will be undermined in terms of real independence. This will happen because the Lisbon Treaty proposes that ‘member states shall uphold the Union’s positions in international organisations.’ As far as Ireland is concerned, this proposal must signal the end of a proud independent foreign policy. In fact, under Lisbon, Ireland’s position on international bodies, like the United Nations, will resemble the role played by countries such as Belarus when the Soviet Union was a key player in world affairs. They had their missions, but not their independence!

Europe at the Crossroads

Without question, Europe has played an enormously significant role in the moulding of human civilisation. For example, inspiring periods of European history, such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, all contributed to the liberation of the human spirit, and, undoubtedly, the world’s culture would be considerably poorer without the creativity of European artists. A short list of names is a reminder of that extraordinary benefaction: Beethoven, Mozart, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Ibsen, and Joyce. Also, it is worth noting that in science and philosophy, with names such as Plato and Darwin, Europe has always been at the centre of human inquiry and discovery. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that the social and political battles, especially since the French Revolution, forged a culture and a social model that is unique in the world in that it seeks not only to help its citizens prosper, but also endeavours to protect the weak and vulnerable by balancing rights with responsibilities. This has been achieved through the slow and sometimes difficult evolution of political institutions, such as parliamentary democracy, public trial by jury, universal suffrage, and constitutions.

However, even though we quite rightly celebrate all that is great and good about Europe, we cannot and should not ignore the fact that there is another aspect to European history that exposes a much darker side. For hundreds of years, European powers exerted their authority through imperialism, absolutism, and war. In the nineteenth century, Europeans colonised vast swathes of the globe and waged brutal colonial wars, which violated the native peoples of every continent. In the twentieth century, Europeans invented fascism, totalitarianism, the concentration camp, and the gulag.

I believe that at this critical point in history, we, as citizens of Europe, are entitled to ask ourselves, where is Europe headed? Will the current European project, as articulated by the Lisbon Treaty, respect the traditional European spirit of creativity, democracy, and social progress, or turn instead and reproduce the destructive tendencies that have so often triumphed in Europe’s darkest past? Sadly, the evidence so far would suggest the latter. The arrogant contempt shown by the European political elite to the normal exercise of democracy by the peoples of Europe, coupled with a ruthless pursuit of untrammelled power, clearly exposes a nostalgia by some for the more autocratic ways of the past. Indeed, I can detect what I call an ‘ache for empire’ in the aspirations expressed by many powerful people in Europe today. For example, Barroso, the Commission President, confessed that ‘I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empires. We have the dimensions of empire’; and the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, confidently declared that ‘the philosophy behind all these proposals is always the same – a more powerful Europe, also a more closely integrated Europe – in short I am advocating a United States of Europe’. Of course, what most of the big European states have in common is the historical fact that in the past they all maintained huge empires, but, thankfully, over the last century or so all of these empires collapsed and disintegrated. Yet, there remains an ‘ache for empire’, rather like the ‘phantom pain ‘of the amputee, where, even though the limb is gone, a gnawing hurt is still experienced where the limb used to be.

Now, all of these states are realistic enough to accept that they can never retrieve their own ‘lost empires’, but many of them dare to hope that by working together under the banner of the EU they might be able to regain lost power and influence and, once again, play a dominant role in world affairs. As Johan Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist, put it: ‘One basic formula for understanding the Community is this: Take five broken empires, add the sixth one later – Britain – and try to make one big neo-colonial empire out of it all’.

It seems to me that the democratic choice of the Irish people to reject the Lisbon Treaty, rather than creating a ‘problem’, as the decision has been described by the European elites, could, in fact, give rise to a unique opportunity to address some of the key challenges facing Europe today. In my opinion, resolving issues such as the disconnect between the institutions and the people, the democratic deficit, and the lack of transparency in decision making is essential if Europe is to become the embodiment of peace, democracy, and social progress. If Ireland, a small island on the periphery of the continent, by rejecting this ominous treaty succeeds in frustrating an undemocratic power grab by the European elites, then it will have played a disproportionate role in defending the positive values that are part of the shared history of the peoples of Europe. Indeed, some might say that this would not be the first time that the Irish saved civilisation in Europe. There are those who maintain that when Europe descended into the ‘dark ages’, it was Irish monks who kept alive both scholarship and learning!

Of course, not all states in Europe enjoyed the same experience of imperialism; in fact, some small countries, amongst them Ireland, endured, over the centuries, the crushing might of empire. As a consequence, it is astonishing that some are even contemplating the level of integration that is proposed by the Lisbon Treaty. Indeed, it is worth recalling that this is not the first time in Irish history that an unrepresentative political elite became convinced that their own interests might be best served through Ireland becoming subsumed within a greater political entity. In 1801, the unrepresentative Irish Parliament voted itself out of existence and signed up to the disastrous Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. By the way, all members received serious inducements to vote in favour of the abolition of Irish democracy. The Act of Union survived for well over a century, and during that time Ireland experienced economic decline, cultural degradation, including the collapse of the Irish language, and a catastrophic famine. Surely, if we are to learn anything, it is that if we chose to ignore our history, then, inevitably, we will be condemned to the repetition of the mistakes of the past. By the way, there is a certain irony in the historical fact that Ireland in the nineteenth century, through representation in Westminster, had more say in the administration of the British Empire than the Irish Republic will have, through representation in Brussels and Strasbourg, in the governance of the European Union under the Lisbon Treaty regulations.

Make no mistake about it, if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified and, as a consequence, a federal European state is established, then, a sovereign independent Irish nation will cease to exist. The dream of ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies’ was what fuelled the centuries of struggle carried out by Theobald Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Patrick Pearse, and James Connolly. The loss of national sovereignty implicit in the Lisbon Treaty will represent nothing less than a renunciation of those centuries of struggle!

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2008