Consequences of last year's No vote still reverberate in Europe
The Irish in Europe are on the wrong side of the argument, and not just with Germans
IT USED to be easy being Irish in Germany. Strangers’ eyes would light up when they heard where you were from and they would exude a happy sigh: “Ach, Irland!”
There were times when every German, it seemed, had either just been to Ireland or had firm plans to go. Like the Berlin taxi driver who said he walked around the Burren every July in the rain or the elderly man in Leipzig who claimed he could tap into the “ancient energy source” in Irish church ruins.
That feeling of being everybody’s darling has taken a hit in the last 12 months. Since Ireland’s No to Lisbon, the Irish in Germany have been made to feel like ingrates. Wherever you go, the same insinuation: “Three decades of EU cash and then you give us the finger.”
Nearly 20 years after unification, the Irish are the new East Germans. We are in the same situation as the easterners in the last two decades who had to grit their teeth whenever a westerner complained about the billions in cash transfers to rebuild the new federal states.
“New roads, new schools, new everything,” went the argument, “and then millions of you have the gall to vote for the ex-communists.”
That view was so widespread that it was impossible for easterners to counter. So they had to grin and bear it.
It was the same after last year’s Lisbon vote. At first, the Irish in Germany defended their homeland’s impugned honour against the simplistic ingrate accusation. There were other factors at play, we argued, like worries about neutrality and frustration with the Government.
But it soon became clear that no one was listening because no one cared. To borrow Micheál Martin’s words as Lisbon One collapsed and sank: when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
The fact is that, when explaining why the first Lisbon referendum fell, there are four million Irish people in the EU who believe the complicated version and 82 million Germans who don’t.
We are on the wrong side of the argument, and not just with the Germans. Next week, nearly half a billion people across the EU will reach their own conclusions about the second vote. If Ireland votes No again, there is little we can do to stop them thinking that we took the money and ran.
This is where the Lisbon debate in Ireland misses the point entirely: if Ireland votes No a second time, it is up to our EU neighbours – not us – to decide how we will be treated in the future.
We may not be thrown to the wolves, but politicians in Germany will certainly keep in mind their electorate’s dim view of Ireland when they consider any kind of alliances with their colleagues from Dublin.
“You have never heard a bad word from me on Ireland,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel to The Irish Times when asked about the coming referendum.
“As chancellor you won’t be surprised that I would like to see Ireland ratify the treaty,” she added, “but I would never do anything to give the impression we are exerting pressure.”
A diplomatic answer, to be sure, but Merkel does not belong to the “Ach Irland” school of Emerald Isle sentimentalists. If Ireland rejects Lisbon, in which Berlin has invested a lot of energy, don’t be surprised if the lady is not amused. Despite their in-built caution, Germans have made two interesting contributions to the debate.
Before he left Ireland, the former German ambassador Christian Pauls asked why the Irish did not see their right to a referendum as a privilege that brings with it the responsibility to at least read summaries of the issues – if not the treaty itself – before going out to vote.
“It is unacceptable that 40 per cent of people who voted No last time said they didn’t understand the treaty,” he said.
“How can you vote if you don’t know what you are voting about? Citizens have a duty to make themselves as knowledgeable, and don’t tell me the Irish media didn’t present that possibility.”
For anyone suspicious of the dozens of leaflets sliding through their letterbox, a second contribution from Germany is worth consideration. Germany ratified the treaty this week, but only after it was given a thorough going-over by the country’s best legal minds at the constitutional court in Karlsruhe.
The judges in Karlsruhe had a personal interest in reading the text closely and critically. Why? Because wholesale derogation of powers to Brussels, the main argument of Lisbon opponents in Ireland, would mean a substantial shift of power from their court in Karlsruhe to the European Court in Luxembourg. Why would the Karlsruhe judges be positively disposed to a treaty that would put them out of a job?
But the judges ruled in June that Lisbon was constitutional – and their jobs safe – because the treaty did not allow a mass transfer of competences to Brussels.
Even in the future, they ruled, EU “member states remain the masters of the treaties”.
The Lisbon Treaty does not transform the EU into a federal state, they said, and the treaty does not create an EU citizenship to supersede a national one. Nor does the treaty oblige member states to provide troops for a European army.
National parliaments will continue to approve all legislation coming from Brussels and, just to be on the safe side, the Karlsruhe judges made a list of areas where Berlin cannot surrender competence to Brussels.
It’s a long list, covering the private sphere, personal security, social matters and even Ireland’s hot-button issue: tax harmonisation. All decisions on tax will, under Lisbon, the judges said, remain with the Dáil or the Bundestag.
After decades on a pedestal and a year in the doghouse, the Irish in Germany are watching the Lisbon Two debate with some trepidation. Like all Irish living around Europe and enjoying daily the benefits the EU brings, we have no right to vote on Friday, but if our countrymen vote No, we are the ones who will first feel the chill.
Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent of The Irish Times