There has been much sniggering in the Western media over Tuesday's referendum in Iraq on re-electing Saddam Hussein, since it is obvious that the only permissible answer was Yes. But how different are referendums in the European Union? On Saturday the Irish will be voting for the second time on the Nice Treaty, because when they voted on it in June 2001 they got the answer 'wrong' and voted No. If the vote is now Yes, the televised jubilation across the Continent will be as synthetic as it was in Baghdad.
Doctors in the Netherlands say that committing euthanasia becomes easier after you have done it once. The same is evidently true of overruling democracy. In 1992, when Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty, Danish democracy was gang-raped when the other 11 EU states demanded that Denmark ignore the result and re-run the vote. In neither the Danish nor the Irish case was there any suggestion whatever that the first vote had been technically flawed; in both cases, the second vote was on the same text as the first.
Referendums are the purest form of democracy: in Ireland, unlike in Britain, they are actually part of the legislative process. After the 2001 No vote, the Irish government should have demanded a renegotiation to take account of its people's legitimate concerns. Instead, by repeating the Danish experience, the EU has shown that its problem is not that it suffers from a 'democratic deficit' - an ugly piece of technobabble which implies that the deficit can be easily filled - but instead that the whole EU project is structurally hostile to free democratic choice.
Moreover, this second Irish poll is being held just as the EU is promising, in the 'Constitutional Convention' which is being chaired by ValZry Giscard d'Estaing, to bring itself closer to citizens. Yet what better way is there to distance yourself from citizens than by ignoring their vote? The Irish are the only people in the EU to have been allowed a direct vote on this treaty; their ballots last year should therefore be valued all the more highly. Instead of this, they have been discarded.
How long can the European project carry on like this? All three of the last referendums held on the EU have produced a No: the Danish vote on the euro in September 2000, the Swiss vote on opening EU accession negotiations in March 2001, and the Irish referendum in June 2001. This is why the former French minister for Europe, Pierre Moscovici, gave expression to the EU's anti-democratic philosophy when he declared in 2001 that he did not want a referendum on Nice in France 'because the answer might be No'.
A pro-European idealist, genuinely inspired by a desire to promote an ever closer union between peoples, would surely wish to keep the electorate fully on board. But it is now obvious that our so-called 'pro-European' elites are motivated by no such laudable motives, but instead by a simple desire to reinforce their own unaccountable power, whatever the democratic cost.
If you don't succeed at first, lie, lie and lie again. Campaigners for a Yes this Saturday have been telling the Irish that the ratification of Nice is necessary for the EU to be enlarged to include ten new member states, most of them from the former Communist bloc. This is simply untrue. The EU agreed to admit four new members in 1994 without ratifying a new treaty, just as it admitted the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland without a new treaty in 1972, and Greece in 1981. The adjustments to the numbers of votes in the Council of Ministers and seats in the European Parliament were simply set out in the individual accession treaties. Moreover, the Amsterdam treaty of 1997 was also presented as necessary for enlargement: its ratification has not prevented the most important issues, such as how much subsidy to pay farmers in the new member states, from being left unresolved, as they are to this day.
What Nice does, instead, is to create a system whereby individual states will no longer have any opportunity to block decisions taken at the centre, or by the Franco-German axis. It does this by dividing the EU into two tiers, allowing 'core' states to pursue new projects, such as militarising the EU, without the others being able to stop it. Thus the treaty is specifically designed to disfranchise national parliaments, to the benefit of the ministers who legislate in camera, and of the commissars in Brussels.
No wonder several senior Communist party apparatchiks - one of them a central committee member for 20 years - have been among those East European leaders who have appealed to the Irish to vote Yes. By the time the EU admits former Communist countries, it will have come to bear an uncanny resemblance to the very Soviet Union from which it is supposed to be freeing them. The message to Eastern Europe is clear: welcome to the club, it'll be just like old times. The result of Saturday's vote is not important: the scandal is that it should have been held at all.