The Irish referendum: how to restore confidence in our political leaders
Some Euro-commentators and leaders are arguing that the rest of the EU should go ahead and ratify the Lisbon treaty, despite its rejection in the Irish referendum, in the hope that evidence of Ireland's isolation in rejecting ratification might shame the Irish electorate into voting for the treaty in a re-run of the referendum. This seems to be based on a crucial misperception of the state of public opinion in Europe.
Even if the rest of the EU does ratify the Lisbon treaty, it seems unlikely so to impress the Irish electorate that it would persuade enough of them to change their minds and vote for ratification in a second referendum on the same treaty (and if the treaty itself is changed, all 27 member states will have to start the process all over again, not an attractive prospect). The Irish would doubtless say, probably correctly, that since not a single other EU member state will have held a referendum before ratifying it, there's no evidence that the people of the EU are willing to support the treaty: if other countries had risked holding referendums, it seems highly likely that it would have been rejected in several of them, almost certainly including the UK.
If the mostly desirable elements of the Lisbon treaty are ever going to be implemented — a virtually indispensable condition of the EU playing its full part in tackling huge current global problems such as climate change, terrorism, world poverty and inequality, and the international control of the resort to violence in international affairs — it's vital to try to analyse why the Irish voted No, and why so many other EU citizens would probably have voted No if they had been given the opportunity; and then to consider what, if anything, can be done to alleviate these concerns and remove these objections.
In the case of Ireland, several specifically Irish issues seem to have influenced the referendum, including several that are totally irrelevant to the Lisbon treaty: fear that a reformed EU would force Ireland to legalise abortion; disillusionment with several Irish political leaders and unfamiliarity with the new Taoiseach; failure of the Irish government and other pro-treaty elements to make the case for the treaty convincingly and intelligibly; the fantastic obscurity of the text of the treaty itself, so that many voters felt they were being asked to vote for something whose implications it was impossible to understand; anger at the prospect that under the treaty's provisions, Ireland would lose its EU Commissioner; and (perhaps most potently?) anger and alarm at the economic downturn, itself the product of the steep rise in international commodity prices (especially oil and food), the collapse of the boom in house prices, and the international credit crunch following the US sub-prime mortgage disaster: the blame for all these woes, however unfairly, being laid at the door of Ireland's own politicians. If the politicians were urging a vote for ratification, the Irish were damned if they were going meekly to obey the bastards.
There are two striking things about this combination of negative issues. First, they don't reflect any widespread anti-European sentiment in Ireland, which indeed has prospered mightily as a direct result of its EU membership. Secondly, most of the sentiments, worries and concerns contributing to the No vote in the referendum are widely shared in many other EU countries; few are unique to Ireland, and those that are probably have similar counterparts elsewhere in the EU. The people of some EU countries differ from the Irish in exhibiting a high level of antipathy to the whole European project: the UK is certainly one of these, and some of the new eastern and central European countries (and/or their leaders) are others. Even those who are generally pro-European are often critical of the lack of transparency of many of the processes of the EU, of the centripetal tendencies of the Commission, of the failure to clean up the Union's finances, of what is rather vaguely referred to as the democratic deficit. All such tendencies will tend to predispose a goodly number of individual European voters to vote No in a referendum on almost any proposition recommended to them by their political leaders, however intrinsically innocuous.
Much the most serious of the issues setting electorates against their political masters must be the prospect of economic slow-down, perhaps lurching into full-scale recession, in the next several years. Many (although not all) Europeans have got used to years of continuing boom, with low inflation, high employment, low interest rates, and a steadily rising standard of living. The illusion has been created that our political, economic and financial systems and those who operate them have finally gained control of the world economy, and that boom no longer infallibly leads to bust. The quite sudden bursting of that illusory balloon has caused a general antipathy to politicians and a deep scepticism about their ability to protect us all against the miseries of inflation, strikes and general industrial unrest (especially in the public services), a rise in the cost of borrowing, including on credit cards and mortgages, and increased dangers of eviction from one's home as a result of negative equity. The huge rise in the cost of petrol, gas and electricity, and many basic foods, has come as a terrible shock. Someone must be to blame.
One casualty of these developments is certain to be a collapse in support for absolutely essential measures to deal with climate change on a global scale, many of them inevitably entailing cuts in living standards, not only in developing countries struggling to escape from extreme poverty, but also in the rich west. Neither of the present contenders for the US presidency seems to be brave enough to say publicly that the days of cheap gasoline are over, that high gas (petrol) prices are actually beneficial and to be welcomed because they will encourage more economic use of carbon fuels that damage the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, or that only costly gasoline is going to stimulate the search for alternative, eco-friendly energy sources (although Senator Obama has come creditably close to making these points). The pressure from ordinary Americans on their political leaders in a presidential election year to do something quickly to get gas prices down and keep them down is so intense as to be almost irresistible.
Here in Britain popular resentment of the government in the context of the downturn and the return of inflation and, soon, of higher unemployment seems likely to lead to more strikes and disruptions of public services resulting from pay and other disputes. The government has an unanswerable case for arguing that if pay increases are allowed to keep up with (or, worse, jump ahead of) inflation, when the causes of the inflation are international and beyond any single government's control, everyone will suffer from the resulting inflationary spiral, with the value of each pay rise immediately negated by the consequent inflation of prices. But the government seems at the moment intent on placing the entire burden of pay policy restraint, meaning inevitable reductions in living standards for millions of individual families and individuals, on the public sector. There is no sign of willingness to use the tax system to curb excessive bonuses and salary increases in many parts of the private sector, nor to restrain the indiscriminate distribution of enormous profits, especially those made as a result of unprecedentedly high energy prices which benefit an already rich few at the expense of everyone else. The nurse, teacher, or junior civil servant can hardly be blamed for complaining of the rank injustice of having his or her standard of living reduced by pay awards below the level of inflation — in other words, pay cuts — when all around the wealthy are continuing to award themselves and each other real increases in already astronomical salaries and bonuses; and when even the moderately well off are not apparently being required to make any corresponding sacrifice. Mere appeals by ministers for pay and salary restraint in the private sector will cut no ice at all.
The free marketeers inevitably moan about the distortions of the market caused by compulsory pay policies imposed on the whole of the economy, with its echoes of the centrally controlled economies of the bad old days before the collapse of European communism. Ministers are deeply reluctant to seem to be returning to the unpopular policies and attitudes of Old Labour. But in an increasingly challenging economic situation, here is one manifest injustice that is capable of being remedied in a way that might help to restore confidence in the capacity of our political leaders to control inflation and protect even the most vulnerable members of society against the worst of its malign effects. People might even become more willing to listen to the politicians' arguments for reforming the procedures and institutions of the European Union to equip it to make its voice heard in the global debates on the issues that threaten the long-term future, not just of this or that ailing industry, but of the human race and the tiny planet on which it lives.
Postscript (23 June 08): For some reason three comments on this post, all by Peter Harvey with my responses, have disappeared from this particular post when viewed in Internet Explorer: but they are there when it's opened in Firefox. The website addresses of the post and most of the comments have also apparently been corrupted in IE. I am working on this but can't immediately see a solution. Meanwhile apologies to Peter and others. Try Firefox! The comments should be available at:
PPS (26 June 08): Problem with those comments now solved, thanks to Owen's eagle-eyed spotting of the fact that I had stripped out the Word tags from the first of Peter's comments but not from the second: and it was these that were blocking access to all of them in Internet Explorer (but not in Firefox). All should now be well in either browser, and any others that anyone might still be using.