The Irish, of all people, hold Europe's fate in their hands with a single vote.** (Ed. Note appended.)
By Philippa Maister
Today, the Irish -- for the first and perhaps only time - hold the future of Europe's 500 million people in their hands. For weeks, they have been wrestling with the question of whether to vote for a treaty that would change the balance of power between the European Union and its component countries, including Ireland.
Ireland’s four million people are the only Europeans to have a direct say in whether reforms of the EU’s powers and procedures, which have taken six years to negotiate, can eventually become reality. The changes embodied in the Treaty of Lisbon can take effect only if ratified by each of the EU’s 27 member states. Other states have left the matter to their elected representatives to decide.
As an American, to observe the struggle has been to gain some sense of what the citizens of the original 13 American colonies must have experienced as they contemplated joining a larger Union.
It has brought out the patriots, the economic interests, the opportunists willing to exchange their votes for a promise that their interests will be protected, the die-hard republicans, the politicians, the philosophers, and the conspiracy theorists. It has also wrought confusion, as experts on both sides pronounce conflicting opinions as to what exactly the treaty means or doesn’t mean.
Barely a lamppost in the nation is not bedecked by posters urging a Yes or No vote. On the No side, they range from the patriotic, “People died for your freedom: Vote No,” to the comic, with the usual three monkeys demonstrating that “The EU won’t see you, won’t hear you, won’t speak for you.”
The Yes side’s Young Fine Gael, targeting the youth vote, offers an attractive blonde woman holding two melons in front of her with the slogan, “Increase your prospects: Vote Yes to Lisbon.” A companion poster featuring a buff young man in tight-fitting briefs urges, “Enlarge your opportunities: Vote Yes.” The more mainstream posters from the majority party Fianna Fail are more blunt. “For jobs, growth and Europe’s future, Vote Yes.”
Protagonists say the treaty will make the operation of the EU more efficient and more democratic and allow Europe to speak with one voice. But it is highly complex and open to different interpretations, and skeptics have seized on those to discredit it. Indeed, Ireland’s current EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy, who supports the treaty, has said he wouldn’t expect “any sane, sensible person” to read the more than 300-page document in full.
The No side has seized on a provision that would change the composition of the Commission. Instead of each country being represented by one commissioner, only two-thirds of countries would be represented at any one time on a rotating basis. Each country would be represented for 10 out of every 15 years.
More issues would also be subject to “qualified majority voting,” a weighted system that does not require unanimity and therefore removes any country’s veto power. Veto power is retained in other areas.
The treaty also grants the EU “exclusive competence” – the power to legislate and set policy – in specific areas, including the customs union, competition rules and monetary policy. In others areas, the EU would have joint competence with the states, while reserving the exclusive competence of states in other areas.
A provision of the treaty that has proved highly controversial in pacifist Ireland is one that would require member states to assist each other if they are victims of armed aggression, though the type of assistance is not specified. States would also be obliged to assist each other in the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
Small wonder, then, that 30 percent of the respondents who said they intended to vote No in a poll conducted by The Irish Times gave "not understanding the treaty" as the explanation. An additional 24 percent planned to vote No “to keep Ireland’s power and identity.”
Of those voting Yes, 36 percent said it was to keep Ireland fully involved in the EU. The remainder mostly cited economic benefits.
Once considered a sure thing, late polling data suggested a growing No vote could torpedo the prospects for reform. Sinn Fein, the political party, came out against the treaty, saying the Irish government could negotiate a better deal. There has been opposition from farmers concerned about agricultural exports, groups afraid Ireland’s low corporate tax rate could be imperiled by an EU mandate, and individuals who fear the treaty could draw Ireland, whose military is traditionally deployed for peacekeeping purposes only, into a war.
Some Catholics, concerned that EU laws could force Ireland to legalize abortion and gay marriage, are also praying for a No vote.
But the chief sponsor of the No vote is Libertas, a group led and funded by two Irish entrepreneurs who head U.S.-based companies with strong ties to the American military. Whether that is a coincidence or not, it has given rise to conspiracy theories galore and suspicions of U.S. involvement in the anti-Lisbon campaign.
Libertas was founded by Galway native Declan J. Ganley, chairman and CEO of Rivada Networks, a provider of interoperable public safety communications networks for homeland security forces and first responders headquartered in Washington, D.C. Although Libertas claims to be independent of Rivada, they share many of the same personnel.
What motivated Ganley to form Libertas is an open question. According to a spokesman, Ganley read the EU constitution in 2004 to check out any business opportunities it might open up.
“When he read it, he discovered that it was so fundamentally anti-democratic that something had to be done,” the spokesman said in an emailed response. “He founded Libertas to lobby for greater democracy and accountability in the EU.”
Mailboxes overflow with anti-treaty literature delivered by Libertas volunteers. The company remains secretive about its funding sources, raising speculation that some may exceed the Irish legal limit. However, one is known to be Ulick McEvaddy.
An entrepreneur with interests in many ventures – including an €800 million development near Berlin’s new airport. McEvaddy heads Omega Air, a San Antonio, TX-based company that offers commercial airborne refueling of military aircraft.
“The idea of a politically strong E.U., acting as a check or counterbalance on the U.S. does not sit well with our transatlantic friends,” Fine Gael representative Lucinda Creighton declared in a statement. “And now as stronger political union becomes likely, these two figures with close links to the U.S. military are trying to derail the process.”
Comments by John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, added fuel to the conspiracy theory. In an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Bolton said the treaty would undercut NATO, which he described as a huge mistake. If the EU had its own military capability, people would think NATO was redundant and Europe could take care of its own defense, Bolton said.
An Irish rejection would embarrass the EU and perhaps sink all prospects for change in the near term. It would represent the second rejection of the effort to restructure the EU’s cumbersome administrative procedures and create a united front on important policy issues. French and Dutch voters vetoed a previous draft in 2005.
It would also damage the leadership image of Brian Cowen, the former finance minister who recently assumed the mantle of Taoiseach, or prime minister, after the forced resignation of Bertie Ahern in May.
In response, Cowen and the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael and Eamon Gilmore of Labour, who all support the Treaty, launched a joint offensive to turn out the Yes vote, stopping in cities, towns and villages across Ireland to spread the word. Cabinet ministers fanned out across the country on a similar mission and every willing member of parliament was called on to do the same with their constituents.
The American Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobby here, says passage is vital. “It is no understatement to say that membership of the EU has been good to Ireland,” the Chamber pointed out in an opinion piece. “Ireland’s continued economic success is, we believe, completely dependent on the country remaining a fully committed and influential member of the European Union.”
Chambers Ireland, which represents chambers of commerce around the country, also describes a Yes vote as essential for business and to remain an attractive location for Ireland’s lifeblood, foreign direct investment.
Farmers were brought on board after Cowen unwillingly agreed to veto any World Trade Organization deal that would harm Irish farmers. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions backs the treaty because it would give legal force to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, including the right to unionize and strike.
Supporters say the opposition’s argument that rejection would allow the treaty to be renegotiated on more favorable terms is nonsense. And French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has hinted strongly that a No vote could jeopardize future EU funding for Irish development projects.
Did our forefathers in the colonies go through similar doubts and questionings as they pondered whether to sign on to a dream of a united nation and a division of powers? Most likely they did.
As an American, it makes you both wonder at, and take pride in, the drafters of the Constitution of the United States. In simple language, in the fewest words, and in a brief manuscript, they created a document that resonated in the individual consciousness and has stood the test of time.
Philippa Maister is an American business journalist living in Athlone, Ireland.
Note: The author had no intention of insulting or demeaning the Irish people, whom she has found extremely well-informed about world affairs. She intended simply to suggest how remarkable it is that so small a nation has the responsibility of acting as the representative of the 500 million people of Europe.
**Editor's Note: The subtitle of this piece was written not by the author but by an editor and Irish citizen, of all people. Its intent was to highlight the irony of the fact that the historically downtrodden Irish are now the only Europeans with a direct say in the Union's future - certainly not to offend.
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