Pretty much for as long as I’ve been paying attention to these things, Europe has been “in crisis” or “in chaos” or “in despair” because one or another European country failed to ratify yet another European treaty. Invariably, something cataclysmically important was at stake, such as the creation of a European currency. Often the difficult country was a small one — Denmark, say, whose voters rejected the treaty that helped create the European currency in 1992. At that time, France and Germany bemoaned the fact that some tiny number of Danes were “holding up Europe.” The Danes were duly sat upon, negotiated with and granted “opt-outs” until they voted the right way a year later. Order was restored — until the French themselves voted against the European constitution in a referendum in 2005. Whoops!
This week’s villain is Ireland, possibly the country that has benefited most from its membership in the European Union. During the first two decades of its membership, Ireland received some $50 billion from other European taxpayers, a sum that helped transform Ireland from an ancient basket case, famed for its tragic poets, into a 21st-century economic success, famed for its software companies. Dublin went from backwater to boomtown, the Irish began importing immigrants and, in one memorable moment, Irish per capita income surpassed that of Britain — and then kept going. It remains, remarkably, among the highest in the world. The decisive Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty last week thus has a certain poignancy: The country that owes more to “Europe” than any other has now blocked, possibly forever, a set of reforms that, in lieu of that rejected constitution, were meant to give “Europe” a real foreign policy face: a proper president, for example, and a minister of foreign affairs.
Why did the Irish say no? Part of the answer lies in the protest letter that one “no” voter in County Clare attached to his ballot paper. Given the opportunity to support or reject a unified European foreign policy, he chose instead to protest the fact that Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, is no longer flying from Shannon Airport to Heathrow. “Pity the poor Eurocrats” who have to deal with that sort of sentiment, wrote Fintan O’Toole, an Irish Times editor, who also reported that a woman in Galway City declared that she wouldn’t vote for the treaty because she feared her sons would be drafted into the new European army — an army that, of course, the treaty would not create.
As is always the case in these situations, it seems that most voters hadn’t in fact read the treaty, or didn’t understand it, or used the referendum to express their feelings about something else altogether — such as the urgent need for direct flights to London. And although the mainstream of the Irish political class — every major political party, multiple business lobbies, even the Catholic Church — supported the treaty, they did so through bland and uninformative slogans (“Good for Ireland, Good for Europe”) that no one really understood.
But this, too, is now traditional: During doomed referendum campaigns, the political class, whether Irish or Danish or French, is always unable to sell some complicated institutional reform to the general public, and it is never able to explain to the voters why they should care. And perhaps this should no longer surprise anyone. Maybe someday there will be a country called Europe, whose citizens feel as deeply about the institutions of Europe as they feel about their own national institutions, but there isn’t yet. As a result, national referendums on European issues are easily hijacked by rumor, hearsay and single-issue campaigners, however insane or inane. More to the point, they will continue to be, at least for some time to come. So perhaps it would be better all around if Europe’s leaders came to terms with this and moved on. As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with a Europe in which some countries adopted a common currency and others did not. The same is doubtless true of “European” foreign policy, which is always at its most successful when several powerful nation-states — some combination of Germany, France or Britain, and two or three others — get together, make a decision and stick to it. By contrast “European” foreign policy is often at its weakest when it is carried out by functionaries who owe no allegiance to any particular electorate.
So pay no attention to the wailing in Brussels: If the most enthusiastic Europeans in Europe didn’t care enough to read the treaty they’ve just rejected, then maybe it’s just as well it didn’t pass.