Daniel Hannan says that the vote on the Lisbon Treaty is not in the bag for the ‘Yes’ camp, which has no argument to offer. Meanwhile, the ‘No’ campaign is gaining ground every day
In Brussels, even the smuggest fonctionnaires are starting to look uneasy. After the French and Dutch ‘No’ votes of 2005, EU leaders determined that there should be no more plebiscites. But there was one vote they couldn’t cancel: Ireland’s national constitution requires referendums on any cession of sovereignty. And so, in three weeks’ time, three million Irish voters will cast proxy ballots for 500 million unconsulted Europeans, determining whether the EU gets the Lisbon Treaty, née European Constitution.
The ‘Yes’ side is well ahead in the polls — with 35 per cent to the ‘Nos’ 18 per cent (47 per cent undecided) according to the last survey — but that’s not how it feels. The pattern of all previous Euro referendums has been for the ‘Nos’ to surge in the final week. (‘If you don’t know, vote no!’ is a pretty knockdown last-minute slogan.) While the betting is still on a ‘Yes’ — just — Irish Euro-enthusiasts feel jumpy and baffled. They struggle to explain what is happening and ask — for it is human nature to place yourself at the centre of the universe — how their countrymen can have drifted so far from them.
Their bewilderment is understandable. Pro-Treaty forces — if I can use that loaded term in an Irish context — enjoy every conceivable advantage. The newspapers are unanimously in favour of Lisbon. So are all the parties except Sinn Féin. The Greens, traditionally Eurosceptic, have joined the government and so switched sides, confirming the rule that no party is ever anti-Brussels while in office. The main business organisations — as against actual businesses — have lined up behind the ‘Yes’ campaign, ensuring that it has almost all the money.
It should be a walkover. But the Euro-integrationists are taking no chances. There is a danger that the vote might become a referendum on Bertie Ahern, who has been accused of corruption. What with the EU accounts having not been signed off for 13 years, the last thing the ‘Yes’ side wants is a campaign about what the Irish call ‘gombeenism’ (very roughly ‘sleaze’). So Bertie was persuaded to step aside, ensuring that the vote will be held during the honeymoon of his successor, the Euro-fanatical Brian Cowen, known to his detractors as ‘Biffo’: Big Ignorant F***er From Offaly.
To be absolutely certain, Euro-enthusiasts also changed the law. Until 2001, Ireland had exemplary rules on the conduct of referendums, providing for every household to receive a mailshot setting out the case for either side. But, following the ‘No’ to Nice, this rule was repealed, allowing the ‘Yes’ side’s massive financial advantage to tell. A consequence of this alteration, of course, is that all Irish referendums — not just those to do with Europe — are now open to bias. Thus does the EU serve to vitiate democracy within its member states.
All in all, Irish ‘ayes’ should be smiling. But, from the moment the campaign began, things went wrong. First, a French minister announced that her government, which currently holds the EU presidency, planned to harmonise business taxes around the EU. ‘Yes’ campaigners were horrified: Ireland’s economic miracle owes a good deal to the fact that its corporation tax is 12.5 per cent, as against 27 per cent in the UK, and far higher in many Continental countries. Ireland’s Europe minister, Dick Roche, called his French colleague’s remarks ‘untimely, unhelpful and inappropriate’. Significantly, he didn’t call them ‘untrue’.
With spectacular clumsiness, the EU decided to shelve the plan until after Ireland had voted — a fact that was then leaked. This was to set the pattern for what followed. Again and again, Euro-integrationists postpone some contentious measure until after the referendum and then — where but in Brussels? — write a memo explaining the need for secrecy. I am looking at one now. It proposes the creation of common policies on justice and home affairs which, however, are not to go live until the ‘Yes’ vote is in the bag.
As the ‘Yes’ side is floundering, the ‘No’ coalition is, for the first time, getting its act together. In the past, it was made up of anti-abortion campaigners, peace activists and Republican hardliners. Now it is also full of articulate youngsters centred around a slick think-tank called Libertas. Meanwhile, Irish farmers, once a reliably pro-EU constituency, are getting tetchy. Last week, with lordly insensitivity, Peter Mandelson told agrarian leaders that they had got their facts wrong. You can imagine how that went down.
‘Yes’ campaigners are unwontedly defensive and reactive. Their speeches are all about what the Lisbon treaty won’t do. It won’t change Ireland’s abortion law, they say. It won’t affect our neutrality or harmonise our taxes or hurt our farmers. Even if all these contentions were true, they would hardly add up to a case for voting in favour. Pushed for a positive argument, the ‘Yes’ side falls back on: ‘The EU has been good for Ireland.’ Yeah, but that’s under the current deal, cry their opponents — so why are you boys trying to change it?
To which there is no good answer. Irish Europhiles, like their British counterparts, have always sold the EU in economic terms. To be fair, this made more sense in Ireland than in the UK. Early Irish referendums were won by reminding voters that, for every pound they paid to Brussels, they got six pounds back. From next year, though, Ireland will be a net contributor. The EU is no longer seen as a source of prosperity. Rather, it is viewed as sluggish, overtaxed and jealous of Ireland’s competitive edge. It is too late for Irish Europhiles to draw on some reservoir of Euro-sentimentalism — a small price for stopping wars, blah blah. It takes decades of propaganda to make people fall for that.
What will happen if there is a ‘No’ on 12 June? On one level, surprisingly little. EU leaders will conclude that there is no prospect of getting their project past the peoples, so they will simply enact it. Indeed, to a large extent, they have already done so. Most of the policies and institutions that would have been authorised by the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty have been implemented anyway: the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European External Action Service, common rules on immigration, a pan-European magistracy. With a bit of lawyerly creativity, Eurocrats will be able to get 95 per cent of their constitution this way.
As for the remaining 5 per cent — chiefly the new voting weights, the smaller Commission and the single presidency — these will be agreed at a miniature inter-governmental conference in a year or so. We shall be told that there is no need for any referendums, since the changes represent a rearrangement of the furniture, not new powers for Brussels.
If the legal consequences of a ‘No’ vote are limited, however, the political consequences would be huge. The integrationist project would have been delegitimised. It would be clear that the EU couldn’t carry public opinion anywhere, not even in the state it once regarded as its most loyal daughter. Euro-apparatchiks would struggle on for a bit, rather as Eastern Europe’s leaders did after the Prague Spring. But any hope that they might one day win a mandate would be gone. So enjoy this referendum: either way, it’ll be the last one we get.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 24, 2008