07 October, 2009

Europe's Malaise

Ireland voted last Friday to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, having voted last year to reject it. My understanding is that Ireland is the only country that has voted on the Treaty, with tradition and constitutional quirks here meaning that we always get to vote on EU treaties that other countries nod through their national parliaments. One problem, of course, with referendums is that you can never be quite sure that people will vote the right way; this is the second time that the Irish electorate have not played ball, and the second time they were then obliged to troop out and vote on the issue again. Whatever about the substantive issue of whether the Lisbon Treaty is a good idea or not, the whole process leaves a nastily undemocratic taste in the mouth. What is the point of voting on something if only a Yes vote is accepted?

When Ireland voted against Lisbon last year, there was a suggestion in some quarters that we had become a nation of ingrates – trousering the EU cash that had lifted the country out of penury only to stick two fingers up when the organisation tried to streamline its decision-making procedures. There might be something to this, but it ignores one crucial fact – the poor track record of EU treaties at referendums in other countries. Whenever the citizens of EU countries are given the opportunity to vote on any EU treaty, or the EU constitution, they have a marked tendency to vote No. If rejecting EU treaties is a mark of Euro-scepticism then the Irish people are no more Euro-sceptic than anyone else.

Too much can maybe be read into people's willingness to block EU treaties. Oftentimes the public seems to vote on the basis of things that have nothing to do with the treaty at hand – last time round, some Irish people rejected Lisbon out of a false belief that it would institute conscription here, while some French voters reputedly voted down the EU Constitution in 2005 thinking that it would lead to Turkey joining the Union. But still, the willingness of people to vote against EU treaties based on things that are not in them betokens a fundamental lack of trust in EU institutions and their leaders. This is a serious problem, but I am not sure what can be done about it.

One thing that is sometimes thrown out about the EU is its lack of democratic accountability. This argument is somewhat overstated – it is often said or implied that some shadowy Elders of Brussels make all EU decisions, when the main EU decisions are taken by the Council of Ministers or the European Council. These both comprising people who represent the governments that took office in the member states after democratic elections. Many of their decisions have to be approved by the European Parliament, but that body is an interesting example of how a body can be directly elected and yet still have little or no democratic legitimacy. With the European Council and Council of Ministers, we are looking at people who got where they are as a result of elections, but is still a bit remote from the public will.

One example of how remote the EU decision making apparatus is from the public is the case of a new office created by the Lisbon Treaty – the president of the European Council. The actual powers of this office have been left a bit vague, and the president's main role will be to chair Council meetings (as is, the chair of the European Council rotates every six months). It has been reported that the favourite for this new office is none other than Tony Blair. This is, frankly, an astonishing development. It defies all common sense that Bush's warmongering sock puppet should be given any role by the European Union, let alone one that could lead to people calling him the President of Europe. There is, furthermore, Blair's status as the former head of a rejectionist government who refused to join either Schengen or the Euro. Yet, it is not clear at all how concerned European citizens could go about blocking Blair's accession, or how they could vote to prevent it.

Again, it is difficult to see institutional changes would make things better here. A directly elected president of the Council would be a bad idea, and would in any case piss off those people who moan about the EU going all federal on us. If the president of the European Council does nothing more than chair council meetings then arguably the members of the council should be the ones to pick who holds the office, as they are the ones who have to put up with their choice. But it still seems outrageous that Blair could end up with such a prestigious EU post, even if it is not clear what institutional changes could prevent it. This is maybe the problem with EU institutions in a nutshell – their faults are obvious, but what would improve them is less so.


Roreek said...

Nice post there Ian.

I wonder if the Blair thing is a red herring. It seems to me it is only being reported as a genuine possibility in Britain and Ireland.
Didn't one of the shadowy Elders recently whisper that the President would be from one of the smaller EU countries?

I'm backing John Bruton anyway.
I met him on a beach in France once. Seemed like a nice fellow.


ian said...

You could be right on the Blair thing being a red herring. It does sound like the kind of thing that the Brits would talk up, but it might not have that much traction across Europe generally.

I have also heard Mary Robinson suggested as being in line for the job, but that might be the kind of thing we would talk up.