The Current Discussion: After Ireland voted down EU reforms last week, we're left wondering: Is the EU unraveling?
The question is an emotional exaggeration. It is not logical to banish more than six decades of convergence and nurtured commonalities just because less than one percent of all EU citizens have voted against an admittedly very complex treaty of 300 pages and very technical language. Alas, Ireland owes its development of the last two decades to the EU and its generous grants, soft loans and funding that frames the remarkable transformation of that island nation over the last two decades.
The EU is about a historical convergence of commonalities amongst 27 very diverse people that, in living memory, have fought two bloody and ruinous wars. Tens of millions of people were killed or injured and all have experienced currency devaluations, high taxes, pension reforms and crippling labor disputes. Many have memories of experiments with populist, socialist or various types of nationalist industrial schemes where, for example, more than 16 types of telephone plugs were in use, or where eight different “standards” dictated specification of commodity steel for construction in markets smaller than New York or Tokyo. All started with modest goals and a search for common solutions to coal and steel markets. In due course, the original community of four countries grew as it patiently developed commonly defined legal and real infrastructure and institutions that are a product of willing and open minds. Common policies to solve problems in agriculture, justice administration and the rule of law, security cooperation, financial discipline and regulations grew with the number of community members to the point that hurried outsiders were envious to join the community. A functioning European Central Bank, a common currency, and borderless travel from Estonia to Portugal and from Ireland to Cyprus shows that Europeans have overcome many taboos. Manmade obstacles and attitudes that go back to violent days of the Middle Ages were dismantled with debate and logic. A remarkable example is the common method of value-added taxation, originally a French idea, even though each member sets its own rate.
The Treaty of Lisbon must be taken to all citizens with grassroots debate and community participation, in a modern version of door-to-door sale of new ideas. The understanding process is likely to require a long, detailed analysis and much time for each government to clearly explain the process to the electorate, if only to exorcise the ghoul of double dysfunctional governments at home and in Brussels where the home government will be held hostage (and this is the most common perception amongst ordinary EU citizens). The Treaty must be dissected to show the leaping forward and setting up a rationalized bureaucracy, a faster decision making process and how all different conventions and treaties—dating back to the Treaty of Rome—are merged into a single body and a modern, defining document. This void in education has primed single-issue lobbies and emotionally charged movements to amplify their opposition and crystallize a force to veto the broader concept.
The lengthy treaty provides enough wiggle room for activists for or against abortion, religious schools, taxes or licensing of professional practice across the EU. However, a lively debate about means and methods should not be confused with dumping away fundamental principles of convergence amongst people of many languages, especially in a community where more than 90 percent of its trade (and thus interaction and dependence) is internal. The EU has proven to be a historic leap in trust of one’s neighbors and yesterday’s enemies and, for the time being, the best living example of a triumph of will over fears.
The binding of commonalities is a process and not a project. As such, it is still a work in progress and much remains to be done to flatten the turf. It might take another generation before all is presumed as fact and a foregone matter. Debate, civilised exchange and formations of opinions enrich the atmosphere. Proposals always improve the way to a compromise. Strict environmental rules, the mad cow disease row in the U.K., a common energy policy or modern EU regulations on disclosure of hazard of chemicals and cancer causing materials in consumer goods are all tangible and practical examples of how the EU and its bureaucracy, warts and all, tends to the business and concerns of common citizens in a diverse group of nations. I tend to think this kind of logic can eventually triumph over the emotions of a relative few.
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