Extremists of both sides line up against EU blandness

Mon, Jun 2, 2008, 01:00

The Lisbon Treaty is essentially a useful, but unexceptional, revision of the EU rule book, writes Tony Kinsella 

TWO HUNDRED years ago Spaniards resisted Napoleon's invasion. Francisco Goya immortalised their suffering in his The Third of May1808 painting of Madrid patriots facing a French firing squad.

I read of the Prado Museum's bicentenary exhibition while sitting in the spanking new terminal of Charleroi's elastically named Brussels South Airport.

Two facts, one profound and the other practical, which express the extraordinary achievements of our collective work-in-progress, the European Union.

Twenty-seven nation states which have spent centuries invading, colonising and generally butchering each other, now work together peacefully to build a better future.

EU transport reform was midwife to the network of low-cost airlines that spans our continent, often flying from regional airports built on military installations which the EU has helped make redundant.

The EU is something completely new, considerably less than a nation state, but considerably more than a classic international body. Its model has inspired a number of other regional bodies such as the African Union, Latin America's Mercosur and Asean.

The process is consensual, often bland and frequently boring as centre-right and centre-left governments feel their way forward. It leaves little room for extreme positions.

Perhaps this explains the extremist nature of much of the opposition to the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland? What is being opposed is a treaty that is essentially a useful, but unexceptional, revision of the EU rule book.

Denmark is one of the more questioning of EU members. In 1992 Danish voters narrowly (50.7 per cent) rejected the Maastricht Treaty. The following year, almost 57 per cent of them approved it following the negotiation of a number of opt-outs along UK and Irish lines.

A broad internal political consensus was reached about how Denmark would process EU treaties in future. Treaties which involved significant changes, particularly any transfer of national sovereignty, would be subject to a referendum. Minor treaties would be ratified by parliament.

Last December, an investigation by the Danish justice ministry concluded that Lisbon would not lead to any loss of national sovereignty, and just over a month ago the Folketing (parliament) calmly ratified the treaty by 90 votes to 25.

Ireland has failed to develop a similar mechanism. Could we not in future refer European treaties to our Supreme Court for a constitutional opinion? If the court found no significant changes, then the Oireachtas could ratify the treaty on the basis of earlier referendums. A new referendum would only be required where new powers were being transferred or created.

Those who so stridently oppose the Lisbon Treaty do so from a wide variety of angles. What they have in common is extreme positions with more than a hint of paranoia and just a zest of megalomania.

There are the extreme "nationists" such as Anthony Coughlan - you have to make up a word to describe them. The essence of their argument is that the nation state represents the ultimate human political structure, and the one in which sovereignty is vested.

There are two huge flaws in this argument. The first is a principled one. The essence of democracy is that sovereignty belongs to the people, and not to structures. The people are entirely free to choose which structures, local, national or international, they wish to empower.

One should always be a little hesitant when somebody proclaims that anything represents the ultimate development, that no further progress is conceivable. I imagine a thousand years ago some of my distant ancestors thought the Uí Cinnsealaigh governance of north Wexford was perfect and wanted none of this dangerous rubbish about counties, never mind countries. Fortunately for us all, the rest of the clan overruled them.

Then there are the extreme defenders of neutrality. Their essential motto comes out as "UN good - EU bad" in terms of international security actions. Neither democratic triple lock mechanisms nor practical requirements matter a damn. The EU is so toxic that when its members deploy at the request of the UN, as in Chad, that too is unacceptable.

If Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Malta and Sweden do not feel that Lisbon threatens their neutralities, how then is Ireland so different?

There are the extreme Catholics of the Cóir variety who see every piece of European legislation as a stalking horse for abortion and gay marriage. They skip irritating details like the fact that more conservatively Catholic countries such as Poland or Malta (where there is no divorce) have no problems with this treaty.

A newcomer to this campaign is the small anti-Lisbon "business" lobby of Libertas that claims Lisbon menaces Irish economic development. The fact that many of those involved in Libertas work for companies dependent on US defence markets suggests one source of inspiration, if not resources.

The development of EU "soft power" not only intellectually challenges those around the Pentagon who claim a US right to militarily dominate the world, it could also directly threaten the future profits of major arms manufacturers.

Again, if highly successful economies like the Finnish or German ones perceive no threat from Lisbon, why should ours be so differently affected?

About the only thing common to all these extreme arguments is the bizarre notion that 27 democratic governments spent several years negotiating a treaty specifically designed to hoodwink the Irish people. Is this paranoia or megalomania?

The Irish Farmers' Association, unhappy with the EU world trade negotiating mandate, threatens to reject the Lisbon Treaty. Such a rejection would leave the existing rules under which the mandate they so dislike was agreed firmly in place. If there is a logic in there, it escapes me.

There is, of course, the danger that if we adopt Lisbon we will improve our chances of building a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world where the Goyas of the future will be robbed of the brutal inspiration of public firing squads.

That's a risk I'm willing to take by voting Yes.