Luck of the Irish

August 24, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the National Interest (Online) on August 24, 2009.

Ireland is holding a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on October 2. Although there are no guarantees in politics, the betting is that the Irish will succumb to a mixture of pressure and blandishments and say yes. If so, the European Union will be stronger, but will anyone notice?

The EU is two organizations. The first is a common market, the term by which the organization once was known. The EU creates a continental market, knocks down national barriers, allows free capital and labor mobility and standardizes economic rules. Despite today’s tendency towards micromanagement from Brussels—controlling the size of vegetables sold and salt content of bread consumed—the result has been to promote economic liberty and development.

Although the EU’s role as a single market is no longer controversial, challenges remain. Existing members have grown wary of accepting workers from more populous, less prosperous states. Some more‐​developed European states have had “buyer’s remorse” when it comes to Bulgaria and Romania, which have yet to conquer the problems of transitional economies, including entrenched corruption. The prospect of Turkish membership has raised even greater resistance.

The EU’s second role is to act as a continental political unit. This objective remains less complete and more controversial.

As the European Coal and Steel Community turned into the European Economic Community (or “Common Market”) and then into the European Union, the organization has taken on greater attributes of sovereignty. The European Commission and European Parliament have steadily gained additional “competencies,” or areas of authority.

Although the EU still lacks the status of a national government, such as the United States, the European balance has shifted significantly in recent years. British Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Nirj Deva contends that the EU already possesses more power vis‐​à‐​vis member governments than Washington does compared to the fifty states.

Nevertheless, the EU’s president serves only six months. The most important powers remain with national parliaments. The EU possesses the least authority in the area of foreign policy.

Which has led to the fight over the Lisbon Treaty. Five years ago the European leadership drafted a continental constitution. Even few policy makers knew all the details buried in the complex and prolix document. The objective was to turn the EU into something much closer to a nation, with a consolidated government with increased continental functions. The proposed constitution extended control by Brussels over more issue areas and reduced national vetoes over EU decisions.

Constitutional revisions typically require referendums, and Dutch and French voters quickly rejected the new scheme. The Eurocratic elite briefly retreated in shock, before making a few minor changes and reissuing the constitution as the Lisbon Treaty. The main difference is that treaties are normally ratified by parliaments, not populations.

Why the Treaty? Hans‐​Gert Poettering, the outgoing European Parliament (EP) president, contended: “We do not want a European superstate—we want a European Union that is strong because no country alone can defend its interests.” Whatever advocates call the resulting structure, the existing regime would become much more of a federal structure, with Brussels gaining significant authority at the expense of the organization’s individual twenty‐​seven members.

Indeed, the German Constitutional Court recently voted to uphold the Lisbon Treaty only if the German parliament approved legislation ensuring the latter’s continuing role in making decisions on core national issues. The Lisbon Treaty may set the outer reach of power transfers by Germany, at least, to Brussels. Wrote Wolfgang Muenchau of the Financial Times: “European integration ends with the Lisbon Treaty. It is difficult to conceive of another European treaty in the future that could be both material and in line with this ruling.”

Treaty advocates fear that pressure will grow in other nations to legislate similar caveats. London’s Open Europe think tank forthrightly declares: “British MPs need to wake up‐​and demand the same powers.” Similar rumblings have been heard in France and the Netherlands.

Judging the merits a stronger continental government obviously is a task for the Europeans. French President Nicolas Sarkozy argued simply: “Europe cannot be a dwarf in terms of defense and a giant in economic matters.”

It is a nice rhetorical line, but the continent faces few obvious security threats. Whatever Russia’s relationship with Georgia and Ukraine, the likelihood of Moscow committing aggression against existing EU members is somewhere between nil and zero.

China is most likely to be the next great power and perhaps superpower. However, it is hard to imagine even a hostile Beijing threatening Europe in any way. Who else might pose a danger? Maybe a well‐​armed Iran would eventually endanger the Continent, but much must happen before that is true. There’s more, however. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner claimed: “We must bear in mind, the necessity of supporting our diplomatic efforts with a common defense, a European defense.…Without this European defense our diplomacy lacks strength.” Whether true or not, there isn’t the slightest evidence that European peoples and governments are willing to devote significantly more resources to the military. At the April Strasbourg NATO summit European leaders promised an additional five thousand soldiers for Afghanistan; so far only seventeen hundred have been forthcoming. Passage of the Lisbon Treaty will not create a continental political will where none presently exists.

Irish Senator Deirdre de Burca recently made a different claim: “If I had to name just one compelling reason to support the Lisbon Treaty, however, it is because the treaty will enhance the capacity of the EU to become a more effective actor at an international level.” Wilfried Martens, president of the European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the EP, contended that “the EU must be united and able to speak with one voice on the world stage. A changing world in which new powers like China and India play an increasingly important role will not wait for Europe to make up its mind. The EU must instead show leadership through its efforts to solve the world’s current problems.”

Obviously, the EU already is one of the most important international economic players. But there is more to foreign policy. Complains Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform: “On many of the world’s big security problems, the EU is close to irrelevant. Talk to Russian, Chinese or Indian policy‐​makers about the EU, and they are often withering. They view it as a trade bloc that had pretensions to power but has failed to realize them because it is divided and badly organized.”

Would the Lisbon Treaty make a difference? De Burca contends that approval of the Lisbon Treaty would help remedy the fact “that at present the international identity of the EU is weak and fractured.” That’s unlikely. The accord would create a more unified organization but not more unified views behind it. There is no common foreign policy today nor is there any common foreign policy in the offing. And without that unity, nothing would really change, irrespective of the creation of a continental president and foreign minister.

A more influential Europe would affect Europeans in other ways, though a consolidated government is not necessary to maintain Europe’s domestic single market. A more powerful government in Brussels could more intensively regulate the continental economy—which would not necessarily be beneficial—but the political will for doing more is limited. European governments are badly divided over everything from economic stimulus to financial regulation. A recent poll found that 70 percent of Germans, with the largest economy on the Continent, oppose bailing out other nations. Open Europe Director Lorraine Mullally observed: “there have been suggestions that Ireland will somehow be offered a lifeline in this crisis, if only they show their appreciation of ‘Europe’ and vote in favor in favor of the Lisbon Treaty. It’s important that Irish voters realize there is no appetite among German voters for such a rescue package, which will make it very difficult to achieve in practice.”

What if the Treaty nevertheless passes?

Lisbon proponents assume a more powerful continental government would result. Yet a government that can be created only by preventing its people from voting for it is likely to be more a hollow shell than a solid mass. The EU has power, but generates little political loyalty from average Europeans. The Economist magazine writes of the EU’s “lack of legitimacy among Europe’s voters” and “The perception that Europe’s legislative machinery is remote and unaccountable.” It has been said that MEPs mainly represent themselves.

Despite the increasing power of the European Parliament, few Europeans base their votes for MEPs on European issues. In the recent EP elections, voter turnout was the lowest ever and voters across the Continent used the poll as an opportunity to reward or punish various ruling or opposition parties for their domestic actions. There essentially is no European electorate.

Earlier this year Czech President Klaus spoke to the European Parliament: “There is no European demos—and no European nation,” which intensifies the problem of “the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision‐​making of the unelected.” Approving Lisbon, which would establish a quasi‐​nation state with little popular support would, Klaus feared, create “a situation where the citizens of member countries would live their lives with a resigned feeling that the EU project is not their own.”

Although his views were reviled by members of the EP, Klaus’ view received support from the German Constitutional Court. The Court expressly worried about the “democratic deficit,” pointing out that “With the treaty, the member states follow the blueprint of a federal state without being able to create … a parliamentary government.”

And none of the many proposed reforms of the EU get to the organization’s essential flaw. Tony Barber, the Brussels bureau chief of the Financial Times, wrote: “Voters sense a yawning gap between the EU institutions, especially the parliament and Commission, and themselves.”

Perhaps President Klaus’s “European demos” will eventually develop. But forcing through the Lisbon Treaty is unlikely to create a unified Europe. To the contrary, attempting to force a consolidated government on an unwilling populace is more likely to undermine popular support for such an institution.

Writes British Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan: “Democracy and the EU sit uneasily together. All the main transfers of power from the national capitals to Brussels have been effected without popular consent.” For good or ill, nationalism is strong and even growing in many nations, including the U.S., China, and Russia. There are enough European nationalists to fill a few buildings in Brussels, but not much more. Irish approval of the Lisbon Treaty won’t change that.

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