The people have spoken - and they are not loo-lahs

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

It is time for politicians to consider an entirely different model of European co-operation, writes Breda O'Brien 

THE PEOPLE have spoken, the bastards. That sentiment is probably being echoed by establishment politicians right around the country after the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty. The quote is usually attributed to Dick Tuck, a notorious political prankster who made it his business to persecute Richard Nixon long before Watergate.

Among Tuck's exploits was paying an elderly woman to wear a Nixon badge, and to embrace the presidential candidate on camera after a debate with John F Kennedy. "Don't worry son," she comforted, "he beat you last night, but you'll get him the next time."

The people have indeed spoken, and not because they are loo-lahs. One of the most insulting presumptions of the Yes camp was that anyone voting No was opposed to a united Europe. It is possible to be a passionate Europhile and to remain deeply sceptical about aspects of the EU.

Some concerns were unfounded. But to give just one example, worries about increasing militarisation of the Union were well-founded.

There was a dissonance between those painting the EU as the reason why there has been an end to war on the Continent, while at the same time beefing up the military capacity. It was just one example of a dissonance between rhetoric and reality.

Proclaiming people who criticise any aspect of the EU to be the secular equivalent of heretics was a dangerous political tactic.

People rejected a vision of church that they felt was trying to control their thoughts and allegiances. They will do the same, eventually, to a secular institution that tries to do the same.

There is a massive need to work on understanding why people right across Europe are not persuaded that the EU represents something truly worthy of loyalty and allegiance. There is a reason why people are suspicious of vast monoliths, and it is not just paranoia. Monoliths tend to crush those who do not agree with them, and then be crushed in their turn when they become too arrogant to be endured. The Irish have done Europe a favour, though it is unlikely that it will be seen in this regard.

It was good for us, and good for Europe, that for at least a few weeks one small country in the Union debated what membership is all about. The sad thing is not that we voted and, according to our betters, voted the wrong way, but that not one other country had the opportunity to vote.

The EU has a grand vision, that of bringing the peoples of Europe together in peace and co-operation. However, if you try to advance that vision without reference to the peoples, all you do is strengthen nationalistic feelings and weaken any allegiance to Europe as a whole. It was terrible to listen to vox pops from other countries, and to realise that they had no idea that major changes were happening in the structures of the EU.

We might have repeated like spoiled children that we did not have a clue what was going on, but one would have had to have been resident under a rock not to have grasped the basics. It was very clear that other countries could not have said the same.

It was good for our politicians to have to take to the doorsteps. If they have any sense, they will take on board that "Trust us, you elected us" is not good enough, and never was. It would be interesting to discover how many people voted for a political party in the last general election on the basis of its attitude to the EU. Few or none, I suspect.

People vote because they like and trust someone, or at least, dislike and distrust someone less than any of the other candidates. They vote on local issues, like hospitals. They vote for people that they feel will manage the economy as well as can be expected in a potential worldwide recession.

It would never happen, but imagine a political party that had had the courage during the campaign to take a radically different approach to Irish voters.

Imagine if this mythical party had said something like this. "We urge you to vote Yes. We believe that it is in our best interests, and in the best interests of the Union. However, if you vote No, we will go back to Europe and represent your interests there.

"As your elected representatives, if you make it clear that you cannot vote for this treaty, we will not crawl back to the EU with our heads hanging. Instead we will say, that there is a major failure to convince the electorate that this project is worth supporting, and it is not confined to Ireland.

"Any other country could face this situation if you had the courage to allow a vote. What are we going to do to address the fact that we are failing miserably to convince people of the value of this enterprise?" It will never happen.

But it would be a good thing for Europe if it did happen. At the moment, the whole project is being built on a foundation of sand. There is no real "buy-in" by the average European voter.

Instead, there is scepticism and mistrust, and a pervasive feeling that the EU is remote and out of touch. It is not good enough to allow that situation to continue.

There is a real sense in which a Union of some 500 million people cannot be in any meaningful way a democracy, because the institutions are too distant from the people they are supposed to represent. That is a dangerous situation.

Ireland has exposed the average person's sense of disconnection from this massive enterprise, just as France and the Netherlands did during the vote on the EU constitution. An attempt to repeat Nice Two would be a disaster, because it will simply reinforce the idea that a No simply results in re-voting until the "correct result" ensues.

"Don't worry son, he beat you last night, but you'll get him the next time" proved eerily prophetic, as Kennedy's assassination paved the way for two terms for Nixon. And we all know how that one ended.

It is time to stop, to re-evaluate, to slow down, and to see whether an entirely different model of European co-operation is needed.