"Yes" or "no" to the Lisbon Treaty
Today (Thursday, 12th), Ireland gets to decide the future direction of the EU all by itself. Colin McGovern speculates on whether the outcome - will mean that “Europe's leaders will finally have to use their own imagination.”
Easyjet has a recognisably orange identity, so it seemed appropriate in retrospect when I booked a flight from Amsterdam to Belfast last week. This route has become a cheap backdoor into Dublin when flying at short notice; as long as you don't mind the two hour trip down the road. Now that a number of bus companies make this trip, it may be only a matter of time before Ryanair moves from Dublin to Belfast and continues to call the destination Dublin, but I digress. In any case, the trip on Easyjet includes a benefit for sociologists everywhere: the ability to watch a large number of people angle their way into perceived positions of advantage; ready for the moment when the ground hostess announces that the plane is ready to board.
The internet has enabled many social situations to be liberated from their seemingly oppressive rules of etiquette. People who cannot tell a waiter that their dinner is cold will cheerfully pull the whole restaurant apart on a review website. Chatrooms are full of uninhibited misanthropes spending their evenings rattling bile off their keyboards to prove that the other misanthropes they debate with are innocently green, boringly predictable or hopelessly mistaken. If the internet is an accurate view of people's real thoughts about each other, then it is a miracle that two or three murders don't accompany every boarding attempt by Easyjet in Schiphol airport.
Everything is set up for trouble: the gate is only revealed at the last minute causing a stampede and each passenger, unless he's paid extra for "speedy-boarding," is allocated an 'A' or a 'B' to represent your pen in the cattle mart at the gate. Unless you're a regular Easyjet passenger, it isn't certain which area will be allowed to enter the plane first, though if you're an 'A,' you understandably feel a little more confident...which is borne out when your barrier is opened first. You can imagine the evil thoughts of young Marie, who got to the airport 2 hours early and was first to the gate, only to find that by holding a 'B' boarding pass, half the planeload walks right past her and chooses all the best seats. However Marie will just stand there, watching; but you can be sure that she'll get her stress relief when redr0cks77 gets an earful on his Facebook funwall for trying to tell her that the Sex and The City film is just a two-hour commercial for Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo with all the plot twists of a mortgage contract.
Back to Europe
Now that I've got the trip home off my chest, I can get to the real story, which is that today (Thursday, 12th), Ireland gets to decide the future direction of the EU all by itself. Most EU treaties just pass the rest of Europe by but because the Irish constitution requires the government to ask the people about every treaty they negotiate, we get to vote on all of them. This time, however, it seems exceptionally difficult to predict what will actually happen. Two contradictory polls came out over the weekend, one in favour and one against. Given that the Irish have always been enthusiastic Europeans, at least by the measure of previous referendums, it might seem strange that their enthusiasm has waned for the European project.
Distinctions between the "Yes" and "No" camp
Only one referendum has been defeated (to ratify the Nice treaty). Although a couple of minor changes were made to the treaty to ratify it in a second referendum, the main reason the first referendum failed was that the "Yes" voters all assumed each other would vote and stayed at home. That doesn't explain the polls this time and the major difference seems to be in the narrative, or lack of it. There was a big idea in every other referendum, whether it be the single European market, or the Euro, or the expansion east. This time however, it's like being asked to get excited about a shopping list. The biggest idea this time is that national governments will get to read European legislation before it gets to be agreed and ratified by the Council of Ministers...asleep yet?
Therefore, the "Yes" side have framed this treaty as alternatively a guarantee of future economic success or a big thank you to the European Union for all the money they sent in the eighties and nineties, depending on who you ask. This vagueness and spin has impressed no one and the "No" side have had a free run to make up what can only be described as pure fantasy in an effort to win the referendum as an end in itself. There is absolutely no reason to oppose the treaty any more than there is a reason to support it (I'm sure somebody out there has a passionate response already written to that comment) and so the "No" campaign appears to be more about self-aggrandisement than the interests of the country. Some of the best claims so far have been that the treaty will force Ireland to allow unlimited abortion and euthanasia, increase taxes, and lose our EU commissioner (already lost in the Nice treaty.) The entire debate, therefore, has cantered around whether or not the "No" side is lying and not about the treaty itself.
The misanthropes on Irish chat pages are feasting on such a vacuous debate. Arguments aren't tested so much as battered down people's throats. Insults fly and very little light is shone on what this treaty is actually about. The bizarre effect of the lack of restraint on the internet is that people start to become really passionate about their side in the complete absence of any controversial issue to discuss. The distinctions between the "Yes" and "No" camp are as meaningful as those between Easyjet passengers with 'A' and 'B' boarding cards; since in the end, one group will be happy with their lot and one not.
The Netherlands had a similar experience when voting for the "Constitution," which bears a striking similarity with the current treaty, in that the debate became about every political topic under the sun (particularly immigration from Eastern Europe or the ability of Turkey to join the EU) apart from the constitution itself. What is clear is that voting on such a complex document is problematic unless the document is the embodiment of a big idea and while a constitution sounds like a big idea, the contents were just as mundane.
The EU was once a haven of big ideas but the spring is running dry, meaning that the leaders of Europe are now refining the edges with each treaty rather than inspiring its citizens. If this treaty is rejected by Ireland, less than 1 percent of Europe's population, it is effectively rejected by Europe as a whole since it must be ratified by every country. If that happens, Europe's leaders will finally have to use their own imagination.
12 June 2008
Ireland votes for Lisbon Treaty
Irish national Colin McGovern lives in Utrecht.
[Copyright Expatica+Colin McGovern 2008]