Monday, 16 June 2008

Andreas Whittam Smith: Irish voters have stated the truth for all of us


The countries outside the eurozone have done better than those inside

Monday, 16 June 2008

Ireland is in danger of being bullied. The big boys planning the assault are France and Germany. That is the plain meaning of the statement they issued on Friday in response to the news that Irish voters had rejected the Lisbon Treaty designed to streamline the European Union.

The two countries urged that the small number of member states that had not yet completed their processes of ratification should do so – even though, strictly speaking, without unanimous backing the treaty cannot come into force. The circumstances which France and Germany are trying to create are those in which 26 out of 27 member countries accept the treaty and only tiny Ireland, four million people out of 450 million, the one state to have submitted the new arrangements to a referendum, holds out.

The desired scene would resemble a skyscraper city in which, bizarrely, one old building has survived and you wonder how long it can last until it, too, is replaced by an office block. How would the pressure be applied? I discount the notion that Ireland could be offered one or two special "opt-outs" from the treaty clauses and asked to vote again. The Irish exceptions could not amount to much, otherwise the balance of the treaty would be upset. Nor would it be a particularly democratic thing to do, seeing that participation in the referendum vote was at a respectable level.

In effect, European leaders would be saying to Ireland, "look, you have made a mistake and here is a face-saving way of getting out of the mess you have created". That sounds like exactly the wrong thing to say to any European electorate.

Instead, if France and Germany were to have their way, the Irish might be asked to proceed with the elements of the treaty that do not require a referendum and opt out of those which do. Then the other 26 members would proceed along their path and leave Ireland tagging along behind as a sort of associate member. The country would lose influence as a result.

Big countries can opt out of this and that and yet still retain the leverage they require. This benefit isn't available for small countries. It would be an unpleasant prospect. Or, worse still, if everybody else signs up, then Ireland could be asked to leave the European Union.

In all this, the attitude of Britain will be crucial. If we were to side with France and Germany, Ireland's fate would be sealed. If not, not.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has said that the few remaining stages of our process of ratification will be completed. However, I do not think that this has much significance. We will do what we have promised to do, but make no commitment as to what would happen after that. In fact, I think it unlikely that we would join others in bringing pressure to bear on our Irish neighbour.

The Prime Minister knows very well that a referendum would also have been lost if the British had been offered one. Moreover, Irish attitudes to the notion of a European entity are like our own. A recent Eurobarometer survey asked Irish people, "In the near future, do you see yourself as Irish only, Irish and European, European and Irish, or European only?". Some 59 per cent – second only to Britain and followed by the three Baltic states – rejected the proffered degrees of European identity and opted for an exclusive Irish identity. Thus British pressure on Ireland would appear as the ultimate example of British hypocrisy. It won't happen.

However, even when the Lisbon Treaty is finally declared null and void, as it must eventually be, there will surface an old idea that would put Britain, as well as Ireland, into the same, undesirable place – a Europe of two speeds, an inner group which combines more tightly together and an outer group, Britain and Ireland included, which continues to use the European Union as essentially a free-trade area and gets nothing else out of it.

This is usually put forward on the footing that the inner ring countries would be treated as first-class members and the outer ring as second-class. But the way that the eurozone, with its common currency, the euro, has developed with the rest of us outside, retaining our economic independence, shows how bogus is the two-speed argument. For the countries outside the eurozone have done better than those inside, while the inner group grows ever more restive with its arrangements.

In its way, then, the Irish vote will prove to have been historic. The Irish will not be bullied into submission. The present arrangements for the European Union, with all their imperfections, will endure. Only one people has spoken, but it is likely that the Irish have stated the matter for all of us.

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