In a referendum last Thursday, Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty — an attempt to overhaul the European Union's institutions. In doing so, the Irish continued a venerable tradition: When the people of Europe are given a chance to directly voice their opinions about the EU they tend to give it a failing grade. The Irish "No" campaigners took on the entire Irish political establishment and emerged triumphant. Their success shows that the European elites are increasingly out of touch with the people of Europe — a lesson the Eurocrats will no doubt go on ignoring.
When travelling abroad, EU representatives like to exhort foreigners to follow the EU's example. For instance, Eneko Landaburu, the director of foreign affairs of the European Commission, has been vocal about his view that Central America is now ripe to follow the EU's lead. Indeed, the Eurocrats have nourished the image of the EU as a singular success story. Why then, do the people of Europe go on rejecting further centralization of decision-making in Brussels? Why do they do so in direct opposition to the "wisdom" of their leaders?
The reality is that Brussels has no cure for the ills that pain Europe. The EU should be fighting intra-European protectionism — a battle that would make the continent more responsive to the challenges of globalization. Instead, Brussels frequently succumbs to what seems like a case of regulatory diarrhea, making European firms less, rather than more, competitive. Its singularly destructive Common Agricultural Policy keeps food prices high and genetically modified foods at bay — all while the people of Europe grumble about high taxes and expensive supermarket trips. For much of the past decade, Europe's growth was low, incomes stagnated and unemployment remained relatively high — not a lot for the EU to brag about.
Part of the problem is that Brussels has become a repository for failed or disgraced national politicians. It is the final stop of the election losers on their journeys from the warm glow of national politics to the cold abyss of political retirement and oblivion. No wonder the European political elites don't want to derail the gravy train to Brussels — they may need to ride it one day. And the more power Brussels acquires, the more jobs will it be able to provide for "good" European boys and girls who have had their day, like Neil Kinnock, Édith Cresson and Romano Prodi.
And so it was that the European elites pulled out all the stops to get the Lisbon Treaty passed in Thursday's referendum. With the media firmly on their side, they outspent the "No" campaign and cajoled the Irish public. Weren't the Irish major beneficiaries of EU generosity? Have they not received tens of billions of Euros in financial transfers from the rest of the EU? Would it not be rude to scupper the European project?
For the record, the Irish miracle had little to do with European financial aid or Irish membership in the EU. Other EU members, like Greece and Portugal, also received large amounts of EU aid and failed to match Ireland's impressive growth figures. The real reasons for the Irish miracle are domestic reforms — low taxes and economic deregulation — both of which might be threatened by further centralization of power in Brussels.
Should Brussels ever get to set corporate tax rates, and set them at, say, German levels, the Irish miracle would soon be a thing of the past. The Irish know that in spite all the piffle about pan-European solidarity, they have been major beneficiaries of the intra-European movement of firms and corporations to low-tax jurisdictions, which scares the living daylights out of the moribund Western European economies that dominate the decision-making in Brussels.
So, where does the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty leave the EU? No doubt, some unscrupulous politicians in Brussels and Dublin will insist that the Irish should be given another "opportunity" to vote on the treaty. Repetition of the referenda — until the voters are browbeaten into giving the "correct" answer — is an old EU tactic that has been used effectively against the Irish and other European voters before. (Of course, once the "correct" answer is given, no further referenda are proposed.)
The Irish should reject this "Zimbabweanization" of European politics. They should make it clear that "no" means "no" and reject any calls for a new vote. They should point to the 2005 rejection of the EU Constitution in the French and Dutch referenda. Neither of the two countries was forced to hold another vote, and the misbegotten document was consigned to history.
If the Irish stand firm, the EU, for its part, will have to go on doing what it does best — muddling through — until another attempt to create a centralized European superstate is inevitably dreamed up in due course.