After 36 years Europe has earned our trust

Wed, Sep 16, 2009, 01:00

AH, SUNDAY morning. Home-made smoothies, pancakes and even unseasonal sunshine. Just to top the morning off I turn on Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio 1 – only to hear artist Robert Ballagh stick his hypocritical little oar into the Lisbon Treaty debate. I turned it off, writes SARAH CAREY

Ballagh’s opposition to a succession of EU treaties is surely one of the most blatant but prevalent cases of doublethink gripping those opposed to “Europe” in general and the treaty in particular.

The treaty debates feature many irrelevant arguments on either side (Yes to Jobs! No to Abortion!), but at least Ballagh confines himself to arguing a case based on reality.

Lisbon and its predecessors require us to transfer sovereignty in one field or another to the collective decision-making process of the institutions of the European Union. Loss of power through the abolition of the veto for some issues, a reduction in voting weights in the Council of Ministers for others, or doing without a commissioner for occasional periods, tends to alarm those who hold the concept of national sovereignty dear.

Personally I rate national sovereignty pretty low on my priority list. Our little nation’s system of government is characterised by short-sighted decision-making dominated by vested interests wilfully ignorant of long-term economic and social consequences. Despite the casual abuse, “Brussels” must endure; most of the legislation that has emanated from that source has been positive and much needed.

The funny thing is that when it comes to feathering his own nest, Ballagh agrees.

The highly engaging and beautifully produced book Sold!,written by my former colleague at the Sunday TimesJohn Burns, tells several interesting stories about the surge in popularity of Irish art during the Tiger years. It also reveals the scale of Ballagh’s hypocrisy. His successful pursuit of droit de suiteperfectly encapsulates how the Irish concept of national sovereignty is long on rhetoric and short on principle.

Imagine you are a struggling artist who sells an early painting for a couple of hundred euro. Twenty years later, your work is all the rage and that same painting sells at auction for tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of euro. Unlike writers, musicians or film actors, you have no entitlement to royalties. As our new millionaires competed with each other for the best of Irish modern art, impoverished artists and their families had to grit their teeth as their work earned significant profits for some but not a cent for their creators.

Droit de suiteis the claim of an artist to a small percentage – 3-5 per cent – of the price the work gets at auction. It is a just cause, and Ballagh led the effort to persuade the Government to introduce legislation that would entitle artists to this small fee. Despite lobbying of Irish ministers, he got nowhere. It was suspected that this was due to the influence of auctioneers who didn’t want to share their commissions (10 per cent from the sellers and 15 per cent from the buyers) with the creators of the work they were selling so lucratively.

Fortunately, the European Commission is immune to the influence of auctioneers and the buyers of popular art. Being socially minded, our European neighbours fully accepted the principle of droit de suite and even went to the trouble of creating a directive which allowed for the introduction of these payments, just as Ballagh and the other artists wished.

Needless to say, as with so many other directives, the Government dragged its feet and, despite five years’ notice, failed to implement it. So Ballagh sued the Government and argued before the High Court that the State’s failure to implement the directive had cost him money.

He won and was awarded €5,000 damages as compensation for lost royalties and awarded his legal costs of €75,000. A few weeks before the inevitable decision and, as Burns says, “with a gun to its head”, the Government finally implemented the directive.

Ballagh did what so many other Irish citizens have been forced to do. Women, workers, homosexuals, the disabled or environmental campaigners – all have had to use the supposedly malign influence of the EU to force the Irish Government to vindicate their rights. Far from fretting about the loss of our sovereignty, the Irish have been running off to Brussels at every opportunity to demand the protection of EU law.

How exactly does this sit with the intangible fear of the “democratic deficit” and “anonymous Eurocrats”? The only “deficit” is on the Irish side of the equation, where successive governments have to be beaten over the head with European legal instruments to do the right thing – whether that is decriminalising homosexual acts, allowing married women to work, forcing county councils to stop illegally dumping or demanding that poor artists get a few quid in their old age from avaricious art collectors.

Whenever this self-evident fact is put to campaigners against the treaty, they inevitably say that they are not against what the EU has done in the past, but are merely concerned with what might be done with stronger powers in the future.

It’s a fair question, the answer to which is “trust”. Trust is not something to which any one or any entity is automatically entitled. It must be earned. After 36 years of membership, during which Irish citizens have repeatedly and successfully sought the vindication of their rights through the European Union in the face of trenchant opposition from their own Government, that trust has been unarguably earned.

Robert Ballagh, of all people, should acknowledge that.