Where Do We Go From Here?

European FlagIt now looks like Ireland will pass the Lisbon Treaty. Remember the last referendum? There was literally no mention of many important issues which were lauded by the ‘Yes’ side this time round. Truly, it is difficult to blame the Irish people entirely for being skeptical the last time around.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the whole fiasco, which started with the rejection of the European Constitution by Dutch and French voters in 2005. It’s time for everyone in Europe to start asking themselves: where are we heading with the European Union?

The benefits of Europe are clear. The common market has reaped enormous benefits for the people of Europe, and there is still room for improvement.  To the extent to which common policy is necessary and mutually beneficial, there is room for central European government that everyone can agree upon.

Beyond areas like trade and security, how much common consensus is there regarding social and economic policy? Not much.

It will always prove difficult to settle disputes in these areas because of the nature of the Union. In terms of voting power, there will always be a trade-off between the power of individual states to protect their national interest and proportionality of influence on the level of the individual voter.

Today, we correctly enjoy something in between. Ireland rightly has less influence than, say, Germany. But a German voter is under-represented in many arenas by comparison with an Irish voter. This will always be the case, so Europe will never be truly democratic  – at least while national identity still exists.

Regardless, if Europe is to expand its competencies at the expense of National Parliaments (because it is increasingly a zero-sum game), the only way it can justly do so is with the consent of all its peoples. Don’t kid yourself. If European institutions are strengthened, it will be through unilateral decision-making and exclusive competency.

To date, this has been a creeping process with no proper end-goal in sight.

This commentator supported the Treaty of Lisbon for practical reasons, not least because there was no clear vision of how much damage could have been done to Ireland by another ‘No’ vote.

But European politicians pushed through this particular treaty largely without the consent of its people. Some parliaments have the power to do so, obviously. Since most aspects of the treaty are completely innocuous and entirely beneficial for all involved, what is the problem?

The problem is that, even if European voters would have voted ‘Yes’ to Lisbon had they all been given the same amount of persuading as Irish voters, they weren’t. This is lack of consent, even if it is in tune with the power afforded to national parliaments on the continent. The transformation of the European Constitution into the Treaty of Lisbon was also largely smoke and mirrors.

Most citizens of Europe have been persuaded of the benefits of the common market. Can the same be said of all the other areas in which the European institutions are extending their influence? Absolutely not.

Europe was functioning pretty alright before the Treaty of Lisbon, and none of the reforms seemed decidedly urgent. But even if we allow them the benefit of the doubt for the time being, it’s now time to put the brakes on Europe.

What is needed now is some honest and open debate on where the European Union is heading. How far is integration going to go? Do politicians envisage more common governance, and maybe some day a federated Europe?

Because the people of Europe have never been told where the union is heading. The current, creeping process of shifting power to Brussels makes it easy (and pretty accurate) to characterise the EU as undemocratic.

Not necessarily because people don’t like where it’s heading (although many do) but because it’s going there on a mind of its own. If we need to be reminded of how out-of-touch European politicians are with public opinion, we need only look as far back as the European Constitution.

We will forgive the European Union this time for pushing a bunch of reforms through national parliaments without persuading most citizens of the benefits. But never again. Ireland’s referenda have been pretty reflective of the European meme: We’re not saying ‘Yes’ until somebody really tells us what we’re saying ‘Yes’ to, and why.

Republished as “Where Do We Go From Here?” by the University Times (12th of October, 2009)

© The Free Marketeer 2009

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