Henry over at Blogging Heads has a long-but-interesting about the Irish "no" vote on the European Constitution. You might be angry at the outcome, he says, but many of the more reasoned objections to the vote don’t really hold up. Irish heads of state signed the treaty, then ‘broke their word’? Sure they signed the treaty, but "[s]tates frequently sign treaties that they then can’t ratify because of domestic opposition." Ireland "sold out" the ‘500 million’ other members of the rest of the states of the European Union? You could look at it that way, but then again, it’s not as if the Lisbon treaty has such overwhelming legitimacy, given that it’s never been voted on by the public in any other EU country, and likely never will be/would have been. Nor do Ireland’s past EU subsidies oblige it to support this particular constitutional change.
Differing political styles play a role here. "Anglo-Saxon" countries show much lower tolerance of elitism-tinged arguments. You can see this in Henry’s unconcealed contempt for the scolding comments made by Contintental European politicians after the vote. To Europeans, the issue of whether the public actually made the right decision is a live issue after any vote, but the Anglo-Saxon instinct, if you can call it that, is to simply deal with the result and move on. Carping about how gullible or foolish the public was rubs Anglo-Saxons the wrong way.
The grand bargain in Continental Europe is that civil-service elites will run policy, and are insulated from direct public pressure as long as they do a conscientious job and get good results. (Often enough, they’re also insulated if they do a bad job, but that’s another story.) Attempts to graft this model onto the UK, though, activate the Anglo-Saxon political immune system. Now, you may say that Lisbon wasn’t an attempt to graft this model onto the UK/Ireland, since it would have actually streamlined the EU governing bureaucracy and increased the power of the European Parliament. But, as the Germans say, Der Ton macht die Musik. The fact that Irish political elites had to ‘sell’ the Lisbon treaty only heightened suspicions, since it seemed to be a case of reproducing a caricature of European political arrangements (the elite decides stuff, then tells ‘the people’ why that decision was wise/unavoidable) in Ireland.
I don’t see much of a way out of this dilemma, since these ingrained cultural particularities ain’t going away anytime soon. Further, as a friend of mine who’s an expert on the EU mailed me yesterday, there’s no sense in exaggerating the consequences of the Irish vote, since the EU can still muddle through with its existing structure. However, it strikes me that a couple of opportunities were missed.
First of all, why rely on Irish politicians to make the case if they’re not trusted by their publics? Pardon me, but it’s typically European to imagine that dull, mealy-mouthed lectures from unglamorous people in suits will prompt "the people" to come around to the right point of view. Where was the sophisticated ad campaign? I’m not talking about boring brochures or placards on streetcorners. I’m talking about the sort of ads that sell products: sophisticated, low-key, ironic, with a non-threatening, man-in-the-street feel. Humanize the European Union. Locate it in a convincing narrative of obligation (they’ve done their part for us, now it’s time for us to step up to the plate). The ads could even be funny and self-deprecating (stuffy Eurocrat wanders through the Irish countryside with a dog-eared copy of the treaty, explaining Lisbon to the man-in-the-street).
Second, and this is not original to me (I got it from Klaus Haensch, interviewed on WDR5’s morning call-in show (g)), why not make the referendum a choice between approving the Lisbon treaty or withdrawing from the EU? As it stands, the reasons that drove individual Irish people to vote against Lisbon are either unknown, irrelevant or can’t realistically be fixed. Because the public only said what it was against, and not what it was for, it’s impossible to draw any concrete lessons. But making the referendum a choice between Lisbon or withdrawal would at least show the way forward. It would also, of course, wonderfully concentrate the minds of treaty opponents, and bring into stark relief everything that EU membership has done for Ireland. You wouldn’t want to drag out this weapon too often, but for revisions as fundamental as this one, it would seem pretty fair.