On Thursday June 11th, 1992 I spoke at a public meeting in Bray, Co Wicklow as part of the Maastricht Treaty referendum campaign. With colleagues, I strongly advocated a Yes vote and engaged in a quite intense debate with those arguing against the treaty. As we ended the formalities and made the usual enquiries about locating a good pub nearby I was very surprised to be confronted by two local women in a quite evident state of distress.
Why, they demanded – one of them in tears – was I advocating a treaty which, they told me, provided for the conscription of their sons into an aggressive, imperialist European army which would, almost inevitably, result in their return to Ireland in bodybags from one of Jacques Delors’s “resources wars”. Here I was faced by two decent Irish mothers who had it seemed been quite cruelly misled to frighten them, and their families, into voting No to Maastricht.
I have never forgotten that occasion and was reminded of it a couple of weeks ago when a Labour Party colleague remarked that she had been approached in a supermarket queue by a mother with exactly the same fear for her son following an encounter with an activist from one or other of the groups campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty. I suppose that some untruths – like old soldiers – never die. I just wish that they would fade away.
Another picture comes to mind. At lunch after an early meeting of the National Forum on Europe I was sitting on one side of a table with two party colleagues. Across from us one of the best-known No campaigners was speaking to two or three companions and describing the workings of the EU Council, telling them of the QMV (qualified majority voting) votes in which the small member states were regularly overwhelmed by the Germans and the Brits. Both of my colleagues had been ministers and both had presided at council meetings under the Irish presidency in 1996. They interrupted the conversation and made clear the facts of the council system, with its emphasis on consensus and respect for all viewpoints. The campaigner quickly excused himself and headed to another table.
Last Sunday I picked up a copy of a quasi-religious freesheet which contained a plea for support and funding for a campaign against the EU – “A Godless Empire”. In just a few lines it was asserted that the Lisbon Treaty would mean that “we won’t be asked to vote on ANY EU legislation”, that the Irish constitution would be overruled by our EU masters and that Ireland would no longer have the right to decide on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, embryo research and the teaching of faith and morals.
These are factual examples of the nature of Irish Euroscepticism and of its public face. In this article I try to analyse this phenomenon in terms of its presentation in the way I have described and of its motivations and objectives. Having been invited to write about Euroscepticism from a viewpoint very far removed from that position it is important that I should clarify my background and relevant experience. I have been involved in European affairs for more than forty years – from well before our accession to the then EEC. That involvement has included national and international business, politics, government service, third level teaching and think tank activity. I have worked in all of these settings to advance the interests of this country and of the wider Europe.
In business I worked in the international food industry and was, in the 1980s, president of the European Food Industry Confederation, in which position I negotiated with relevant commissioners and officials on highly contested issues of standards and regulation. I found the European Commission open and flexible, in fact just as described by Andew Moravcsik, “as transparent, responsive, accountable and honest as its Member States … ”
In politics, within the Labour Party, I spent two terms as a political adviser – from 1973 to ’77 and 1995 to ’97 – and had the opportunity of attending social affairs and internal market council meetings and participating in Irish presidencies in 1975 and 1996. I saw the working of the QMV system – with its painstaking search for genuine consensus and its sensitivity to the positions of individual member states – at close quarters and saw no sign of the oft-predicted steamroller crushing Ireland; rather I saw my country prosper.
With the late Frank Cluskey I was involved in initiating the first European anti-poverty programme and appreciated the capacity of the much maligned Brussels insitutions to take on board a good idea and make it a reality. But I also came to recognise the determination of some member states to retain autonomy in the social field, which continues to the present day, giving the lie to the “superstate” myth.
In 1990 I was one of a small group of friends and colleagues who established the Institute of European Affairs in an attempt to fill a gap in the debates on Ireland in Europe. We had seen a real lack of in-depth analysis and unemotional discussion in the campaign on the Single European Act. The “referendum effect”, to which I shall return below, had tended to polarise debate on a wide range of European issues.
Over the intervening years the IEA has established itself as an internationally respected forum for serious study and discussion, bringing together a wide range of practitioners, academics, public officials and politicians in the search for Irish strategic policy responses to the continuing process of European integration. Through study groups, round tables, lectures, seminars and publications, the institute has addressed all the key issues in Ireland’s membership of the union and the wider international issues which impact on Europe. It became a key debating chamber on the pros and cons of Ireland adopting the euro, with a series of intensive seminars and debates involving economists on both sides and a wide range of business, trade union and public sector expertise.
Today the institute’s agenda covers such important questions as corporate taxation, the role of the European Court of Justice, climate change policy and all aspects of the EU’s relations with its neighbours. The approach adopted in all cases addresses the subject in terms of issues, implications and options. The current publications programme covers consolidation and analysis of the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland’s experience in the euro, the place of national parliaments in the union, climate change, Ireland’s relations with the western Balkans, terrorism and the internet and historic analysis of both the European Convention and the Intergovernmental Conference of 2003-2004.
I include this lengthy section to make a crucial initial point. The Irish experience in the EEC/EU has been complex and demanding but is essentially a story of political and economic interactions within a framework which is flexible and accommodating. Major issues, and minor ones too, have arisen and been dealt with through the norms of political dialogue and negotiation. What matters in any analysis of the union is the reality in day-to-day terms rather than in theoretical or fanciful images.
No international political system as far-reaching as the European Union can exist for fifty years without deep controversy and divergent attitudes. The debates within the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg demonstrate classic left-right policy differences and national standpoints. The ongoing debate on the further enlargement of the Union, and in particular on the prospects of Turkish accession fully illustrates the fact of normal political discourse.
Another area in which there is obvious room for disagreement on the Union’s policy direction is social Europe. The EEC/EU has achieved much is this field, notably in the equality agenda and in respect of the health and safety of workers. The first Irish presidency, in 1975, saw the adoption of landmark equality legislation under the leadership of the then Commission vice-president, Dr Patrick Hillery. However the limited competence of the Union in a number of areas of importance to trade unions remains an irritant for many concerned individuals and organisations.
The ETUC, while supporting the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on fundamental rights and public services, has commented in strong terms on its lack of ambition in other areas and has called for a Commission review of social provisions once the treaty is ratified to ensure the development of policies to help workers handle change. This may well become a campaign issue across the member states in next year’s elections to the European Parliament.
These are examples of the European Union as a political entity with legitimate and strong debate on aspirations, directions and proposed legislation. All viewpoints are entitled to a hearing and to be vigorously advanced. The provision, in the Lisbon Treaty, that the choice of the future president of the Commission will be closely linked to the outcome of the European Parliament elections will provide a focus for policy debate.
Ireland’s unique position as the one EU member state in which a referendum is certain on each successive treaty amendment is both positive from a democratic point of view and negative from the point of view of its impact on political debate. It is often argued that the fact that we live in “a referendum country” means that the Irish electorate is uniquely well informed on European questions. But this is quite clearly not sustainable, as many opinion surveys reveal. It is still the case, after the best part of forty years of EU membership that highly-paid RTÉ presenters describe the European Court of Human Rights as an EU body while the Commission and Council are regularly confused. This is a sad reflection on the Irish political and educational system and very much part of the “democratic deficit” which is so often deplored in comment on the EU.
The most important result of the growing list of EU-related referendums – seven in all, from 1972 to this year’s poll – is the evolution of a sitiuation in which two camps exist which are activated once the very hint of another referendum is sensed. The camps have the same raison d’etre – to win: every word, every letter or speech is designed to gain ground, limit or inflict damage or satisfy supporters.
A particular result of this has been the distorted nature of the debate on Irish and European security and defence policy. So emotional has this issue become that many politicians, and successive governments, have tended to avoid this debate to the greatest extent possible. The extraordinary saga of Irish accession to the Partnership for Peace may be recalled in this connection. In the IEA we thought long and hard about inviting speakers from NATO or the WEU for discussions on important aspects of European security because of concerns about exaggerated publicity and comment.
A personal memory is illustrative. In the early 1980s I was a member of the Royal Irish Academy’s Committee on International Affairs. I proposed to the committee that its annual conference should be devoted to the subject of neutrality and indicated that I was in a position, as international secretary of the Labour Party, to invite as keynote speaker the former Finnish prime minister Kalevi Sorsa. The conference took place in November 1980 and there was a most interesting exchange of views with Mr Sorsa making a valuable input from the standpoint of a neutral state on the very borders of Cold War Europe.
Within days, Mr Seán MacBride launched a frontal attack on the academy, claiming that
that both the establishment of the committee and the holding of the conference had been inspired by the British and American embassies as part of a campaign to undermine Irish neutrality. This intervention led to absolute panic within the academy and to calls for the dissolution of the committee, a result which was only just averted. This was a clear and quite unscrupulous attempt at censorship since Mr MacBride had been directly involved in the process which led to the setting up of the academy committee.
The National Forum on Europe was very much imbued with this divisive spirit in its early days leading up to the second Nice referendum but moved away somewhat during the period covered by the Convention and IGC. The arrival of the Constitutional Treaty immediately signalled a return to the trenches, which were occupied until the “period of reflection” was announced by the European Council after the French and Dutch No votes. The forum moved on to serious and temperate discussion of agriculture, equal opportunities, transatlantic relations and research and the knowledge economy. Now, of course, the Lisbon Treaty has led to a renewed call to battle stations.
It is in these periods of referendum contention that the remarkable phenomenon of Irish Euroscepticism takes centre stage. In the forty-year debate on Ireland’s relationship to the EEC/EU there has been a clearly discernible movement or tendency – I do not comment on the degree of organisation in question – dedicated to opposing the whole concept of European unity or integration. It campaigned vigorously in the early 1970s to stop Ireland joining the European Economic Community, with the Labour Party as a fellow-traveller for a time, and has continued to oppose every treaty since then – in 1987, 1992, 1998, 2001, 2002 and now in 2008.
Roy Johnston’s remarkable autobiography gives a fascinating insight into the roots of the Irish Eurosceptic movement. In 1967, he writes, “… the EEC was beginning to assume the status of a threatening ‘Greater Act of Union’”. This expression continues to be used, not least by PANA (Peace and Neutrality Alliance), whose leading spokesperson describes those supportive of the EU as “Redmondites” and imperialists. That year saw the first of Anthony Coughlan’s many publications on European themes, The Case Against the Common Market.
Dealing with the situation in the run-up to the 1972 referendum on Irish accession to the EEC, Johnston quotes Desmond Greaves, who introduced another persistent theme in a comment on a speech by the then British prime minister: “ … today the devil Heath announced his EEC plan. The shadow of a West European Fascist Empire hovers over us …” Johnston further comments on moves in London on Northern Ireland and argues that “Westminster wants Ireland at peace and with a satellite government in Dublin who will vote under her control in the EEC Council … an Irish puppet vote in the EEC Council.”
Johnston makes reference to the views of his father who, in 1970, commmented on the position of the major political parties on the EEC: “The greatest betrayal of our national interests and freedom since the Act of Union is being openly planned by the major parties … The Labour Party should consciously adopt the cause of an all Ireland radical party that is determined to keep Ireland out of the Eurocrat Empire by every legitimate means.”
The Labour Party made some effort to satisfy Professor Johnston in its 1971 statement on “Irish Entry into the EEC”, which opposed full membership on the grounds of concerns over sovereignty, neutrality and economic underdevelopment. “The Labour Party is not prepared to acquiesce in the abandonment of a sovereignty most solemnly declared and set out in the fundamental law of the state. To do so would constitute an admission of national defeat and would involve a lowering of national self-respect.” This position changed after the referendum, when the party took the position that the people had decided and that the party should work for the national interest within the EEC institutions. It has done so consistently ever since and played a positive part in the European Convention, where I had the privilege of advising Proinsias De Rossa, a member of the Oireachtas delegation.
From the time of the 1972 referendum the No camp has remained in being, not in a formal organisation but as a movement with several distinct philosophical trends but with the single goal of defeating each and every effort to reform or update the institutions and working methods of the European Union. They strenuously opposed Irish entry into the EEC and when that failed turned to the strategy of attempting to oppose and undermine the enterprise as a whole.
In more recent times there has been a shift of emphasis from outright rejection of Irish membership – which is unlikely to “run” with Irish voters, who recognise the many benefits brought by EU membership – to formulae such as “critical engagement”, accompanied by phrases such as “I am a proud Irish person and a proud European”, often as a prelude to a frontal attack on the Union and all its works. Slogans such as “Ireland Deserves Better” have been used to promote blanket opposition to successive EU treaties and to project a range of negative assertions which has remained almost identical in tone and content since 1972.
That tone and content may be characterised by the closing passage of the recent presentation to the National Forum on Europe by the Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, who pointed out a number of things that the EU had not done:
It did not reduce Ireland to a province of a European empire.
It did not enforce the conscription of young Irish men and women.
It did not force Ireland into aggressive imperialist wars.
It did not bring about a disastrous fall in the nation’s population.
It did not destroy the Irish economy.
It did not make Irish culture a thing of the past.
It did not end trade union rights.
It did not introduce abortion and euthanasia.
It did not suppress religious freedom.
All of these firm fear-inducing predictions were made again and again and every one was proved to be groundless and inaccurate. They are being made again today, by the same individuals and they are just as unfounded and misleading.
These nine points encompass the main components of Irish Euroscepticism – a potent combination of nationalism, fundamentalism and radical left-wing economics. Irish Euroscepticism – whether dealing with sovereignty or neutrality – is predominantly an expression of nationalism.
In a formal submission to the National Forum on Europe in 2006, the National Platform statred that
European integration is therefore not just a process of depriving Europe’s nation states and their peoples of their national democracy and independence. Within each member state it represents a gradual coup by government against legislature and by politicians against the citizens who elect them … it turns the state itself into an enemy of its own people … it undoubtedly represents the most profound crisis of democracy in Europe since the days of nazism and fascism.
It is an extraordinary fact that statements of this kind regularly resort to atempts to link the European Union with Nazism. This contempt for the origins of the Union and for its founders – many of whom had suffered under Hitler and his puppets – is particularly troubling. It is difficult, in this connection, to avoid memories of the emergence in the Nice debates of direct links between one anti-EU group and German neo-nazis. Of course this line of discourse finds much of its inspiration in the xenophobic British tabloid press.
On April 22nd, 2004 a Daily Express editorial proclaimed that “Europe has become a monster swallowing up sovereign nations under the tyranny of a vast and heartless bureaucracy in a way that Hitler could only dream of.” (The modest bureaucracy that is the European Commmission in Brussels is in fact headed by one of this country’s finest public servants, Catherine Day; her immediate predecessor as secretary general of the Commission, David O’Sullivan, was also Irish.)
In an earlier submission to the National Forum on Europe, the National Platform had attacked the basic EU concept of shared sovereignty, arguing that ideas such as “pooling sovereignty, shared sovereignty or limited sovereignty are but rationalisations for subordination to rule by others”. Gerry Adams has argued that “ … the EU member states are no longer really sovereign or independent” and that Sinn Féin does not delude itself that Ireland can enjoy full democracy or national independence within the European Union – despite now stating that the country’s future lies within the Union. Republican Sinn Féin asserts that “for small nations like Ireland … the EU merely represents another form of imperialism”.
Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the Eurosceptic input to the neutrality debate, which is firmly based on the twin concepts of nationalism and pacifism and which is expressed in propositions such as that – on conscription – to which I have referred in the opening section of this article. In a pastiche of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, circulated during the Nice campaigns, the development agency Afri used the following extraordinary language:
We declare the right of the US-European Empire to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasible. Standing on that fundamental right and asserting it in arms in the face of the Developing World we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a fully-owned subsidiary of the US-European Empire and we pledge everyone else’s lives and the dividends of our trade in arms to the cause of the Empire and the exploitation of poorer nations.
This document, which was doubtless accompanied by a heartfelt call for serious debate, concluded: “In this supreme hour of the Nice Treaty referendum the Irish nation must, by its gullible servility… prove itself worthy of the slavish destiny to which it is lured.”
Opponents of the Lisbon Treaty are replaying the militarisation argument that has been deployed in every referendum since 1972. Had those arguments been true a whole generation of Irish men and women would have been conscripted into a European army and many would lie in military graves across “the EU Empire”. They were not true in 1972 and they are not true today.
The treaty is clear on the essential elements of the Common Security and Defence Policy, which is based on the principles and values which have made the European Union the most successful peace process in modern European history, reconciling World War II enemies, bringing Greece, Spain and Portugal back to democracy and welcoming the former satellites of the Soviet Empire into the voluntary association which is today’s EU.
The treaty text, whose complexity does not help, sets out the main elements of the CSDP. Missions are limited to the so-called Petersberg Tasks, based on the UN Charter and designed to support the UN in peacekeeping and related actions. All key decisions are made by unanimity. The position of the six neutral member states is fully recognised. Each member state decides on whether, or to what degree, to participate in missions.
The fundamental question on European security and defence policy is that of shared responsibility in a challenging world environment. Ireland has always accepted its responsibilities and has a positive contribution to make to the evolution of European policy and practice. Our fundamental policy stance of military neutrality is fully protected through the terms of both the Lisbon Treaty and Bunreacht na hÉireann.
As I write this an Irish general is in command of a UN-mandated, EU-managed mission with the important task of protecting hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons in Chad, victims of the continuing Darfur tragedy. Irish troops are also taking part in the EU stability force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Members of An Garda Siochána are working in an EU police mission in Bosnia while more are on their way to Kosovo. Irish civilian workers are active in EU humanitarian and rule of law missions in half a dozen countries. Not a nuclear bomb nor an imperialist plot in sight but rather a programme clearly in line with UN principles and with Ireland’s tradition of peacekeeping and its contribution to world stability and security.
The sovereignty argument is accompanied by a proposition designed to make sense of the slogan “Ireland Deserves Better”. It is summed up by Gerry Adams, who claims that Sinn Féin wants “to cooperate with democrats across our continent in building a Europe of equals where all states … respect one another’s sovereignty and national democracy and cooperate together in tackling the common problems of Europe and the wider world”.
The clearest statement of this objective may be found in the Minority Report of the European Convention – signed by five members and four alternate members, including Danish Eurosceptic Jens-Peter Bonde and Irish Green Party leader John Gormley – which set out a proposal to transform the EU into a “Europe of Democracies” described as “ a treaty association of free and self-governing European states and an open economic area”. This alternative Europe would be organised on an interparliamentary basis with its rules being valid only if passed by
all national parliaments so that each parliament would have a veto on any issue it deemed important. The national parliaments would elect the Commissioners and the President of the Commission and would draw up the EU’s annual legislative programme with the Commission as no more than a secretariat.
The availability of this alternative, in practical political terms, would appear questionable.
Looking at the nationalist theme in Euroscepticism I cannot forget the scene in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on January 17th, 1995 when François Mitterrand gave his last speech to the asembly before leaving office as president of the French republic.
I was in the parliament on that day and remember the impact of his closing words, delivered at a time when the Balkans crisis was still far from peaceful resolution:
What I am asking you to do is almost impossible, because it means overcoming our past. And yet, if we fail to overcome our past let there be no mistake about what will follow: ladies and gentlemen, nationalism means war!
Jean Monnet commented on aspects of the early debates on the European treaties in the 1950s that it was easy to see that right-wing and left-wing nationalism would tacitly join forces to sabotage them. As usual, Monnet was accurate, as the situation in Ireland continues to prove.
The fundamentalist, right-wing of Irish Euroscepticism has been active from the outset in the 1970s. As the debate on the Lisbon Treaty gets under way the claims of “Godless Europe” and imminent threats to individual and societal morals are heard again. “Do we want a Godless Empire which dictates our values?” asks a Fr John Brady in the most recent issue of the freesheet Alive, which, with many references to British tabloid sources, conducts an unremitting campaign against every aspect of European integration. According to this cleric the Lisbon Treaty allows the Irish constitution to be overruled by the terms of Article 48. (In fact Article 48 contains two separate references to the necessity for the ratification by states of treaty changes “in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements”. )He goes on to assert that “we will no longer have the right to decide on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriages and the teaching of faith and morals”. (In fact the position on abortion is covered by a binding treaty protocol, though the EU has no competence in this or in the other areas listed by Fr Brady.)
Referring to the EU as “an oppressive, Godless superstate” Alive, in July 2002, quoted Dana Rosemary Scallon MEP as exploring “how the EU’s radical agenda is undermining the role of parents in caring for their children” and alleging a “chilling move” by which the European Parliament was calling for the unrestricted killing of unborn babies. The editorial asserted that “globally the EU is now seen as one of the most forceful promoters of today’s Godless culture of death”. More recently, in April 2004, it employed the “Nazi” smear, echoing the wisdom of the Daily Express. It may be of interest to note that the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), of which the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, is vice-chairman, has described the Lisbon Treaty as representing a satisfying institutional solution to the enlarged EU and as introducing necessary reforms that should allow European construction to continue in an efficient and just way.
The COMECE statement recalled the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who told an Austrian audience that “if … on some points justified criticisms can be raised about certain European institutions the process of unification remains a most significant achievement which has brought a period of peace, heretofar unknown, to this continent formerly consumed by constant conflicts and fratricidal wars …” The Pope went on to express his view that “Europe is moving towards a unity capable of ensuring a lasting order of peace and just development”.
The longstanding left-wing assault on the EU has been complemented in the Lisbon Treaty debate by the arrival of the Libertas campaign for a No vote on the basis of the alleged threat to business interests from EU regulations and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Libertas Institute, founded by businessman Declan Ganley, describes itself as “speaking to the hearts and minds of Europeans” and seeks to provoke enlightened discussion of the EU. It proclaims its attachment to individual liberty and free markets. It has addressed itself to business interests and especially to small and medium-sized companies, arguing that EU regulation threatens their profits and competitiveness.
In the pursuit of enlightenment Libertas has discovered a deadly threat to Irish democracy in the text of the Referendum Bill published by the Government. This revelation is nothing more or less than the 2008 update of the original 1972 constitutional provision for incorporation of EU legislation in Ireland. We have survived and prospered with this article for almost forty years. Libertas, it would seem, is adjusting to the Irish Eurosceptic method.
The left-wing critique of the neo-liberal basis of the European Union goes back to the earliest days, in the 1950s and 1960s. The concept of a “rich man’s club” remains a useful slogan, which was given new emphasis in the debates on Nice and on the draft Constitutional Treaty by arguments about the common commercial policy and the consolidated text, which reiterated many elements of the Treaty of Rome, such as the reference, in Article 3, to “an internal market where competition is free and undistorted”. This phrase was removed from the statement of Objectives of the Union in the final negotiations of the Lisbon Treaty on the demand of the French government following the referendum debate in 2005.
The Nice Treaty debates featured slogans predicting losses of jobs and income following a Yes vote and arguing that all public services would be subject to privatisation. The “No to Nice” campaign made the entirely untrue assertion that “Nice removes our veto on harmonizing taxes in the EU”. It also stated, in connection with EU assistance to the developing world, that “if Nice is passed, Ireland will simply be told by the bigger states how much money to give and when”. This assertion was simply untrue.
The previous section may be seen as an unfair attack on the proponents of a No vote in this year’s referendum. I see it as simply a factual characterisation of a movement which has carried on the 1972 campaign for thirty-five years with, fundamentally, the same political aim. If they could they would take Ireland out of the European Union. As they cannot, they seek to inflict as much damage as possible on the Union and to marginalise Ireland within its councils. The proposed “alternative Europe” is quite simply not available and arguments about renegotiating the treaty after a No vote neglect to take account of the position of the other twenty-six member states, eighteen of which had ratified the Constitutional Treaty.
The issues of sovereignty, neutrality or non-alignment, neo-liberalism and public morals are all entirely appropriate for public debate and no one should minimise them. As an adviser to the Oireachtas delegation to the European Convention I saw those issues debated and analysed in depth and saw Irish politicians – so regularly characterised as selling out the national interest in EU matters – contribute to consensus outcomes in the interests of the nation and of the wider, and widening, Union. This was a genuine political process with the essential elements of flexibility, compromise and reality and one in which Ireland’s voice was clear and effective.
We need to find a way of achieving a genuine debate on many aspects of Ireland’s relationship with the European Union and on the Union’s future direction and prospects. This requires action and commitment by political parties, both within the Oireachtas and in their activity in the community. It calls for serious, and well resourced, efforts by community groups, by NGOs, by academic circles and by the national and local media. What is not needed is an unending, potentially futile, struggle with one side seeking to frustrate any effort at reform or restructuring of the Union and its institutions.
To comment briefly on sovereignty it can be argued that agreeing, and ratifying, the Lisbon Treaty represents a positive exercise of national sovereignty and as a positive national commitment to a future of partnership in pursuit of shared goals and aspirations. Sovereignty does not simply reside in having the ability to say no: it means being in a position to advance and secure essential national interests. I recall the former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitsky replying to a questioner as Austria prepared to accede to the EU by arguing that sovereignty means being at the table where key decisions are under debate and when they are made.
In a world of ever greater interdependence there is nothing to be gained in standing alone as masters of an ever narrower space. One of the central arguments of the No side in this debate relates to the alleged importance of the national veto. Having the veto does not guarantee meaningful outcomes. Within the EU system unanimity in certain areas – for example defence and taxation – is important and recognised as such. But it is entirely fanciful to imagine that the policy agenda of the Union can be advanced if every decision requires unanimity. Ireland has never chosen to use the veto – though perhaps once threatening to do so over milk quotas – and yet has not done too badly in its EU membership over more than thirty years.
I would conclude that Irish Euroscepticism is a force that continues the divisive campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s since, apart from the Labour Party, the No camp of 1972 never accepted the outcome of that referendum, convincing itself that it could be overturned – even if that required an extremely long march into history. Thus we are facing a seventh outing for the long list of objections, revelations and predictions which, with one exception, have been rejected by the electorate and, with no exception, have been disproved by the facts of economics, social development and political life here over thirty-five years.
The European Union is not perfect. It is a political construct characterised by the compromises and consensus decisions that are fundamental to all politics. The debates on the Constitutional Treaty demonstrated a faultline in the pro-European groupings whereby they felt compelled to inflate the case for what was, and – in its new livery remains – a modest enough proposal. They used overstatement of what the EU does and can do and relied on fading memories of genuine and historic achievements. To quote Andrew Moravcsik, referring to France and Holland, “small wonder they were outgunned by grumpy populists with stronger symbols rooted in class, nation and race (and with even more inflated views of what the EU does)”.
I am a convinced Europhile whose deepest feelings are close to the views on nationalism of François Mitterrand. In 1998, as a director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development I travelled from Sarajevo to Banja Luka in Bosnia. We drove through a once pleasant landscape disfigured by evidence of ethnic cleansing, with thousands of burnt-out houses reflecting the nationalist-inspired terror which had reigned there not long before. More recently I heard a deeply convincing description, at a National Forum on Europe debate, of the confrontation during the 2004 European Parliament election in Northern Ireland between the competing nationalisms of republicanism and loyalism, both espousing Euroscepticism.
I believe that the deepest interests of this country demand that Irish Euroscepticism is confronted by a more coherent statement of the positive nature of the European Union and of what it has meant to Ireland over four decades. The assets which can be brought to the debate are considerable. Ireland has principles and values which have underpinned its record in peace-keeping and humanitarian activity. It has conducted the affairs of the European Union with skill and achievement in successive presidencies. It has a clear sense of the rights and potential of small countries in a global and European setting. Its experience of nearly forty years of EU membership has been positive across many fields and there is no conceivable benefit in rejecting that history of achievement and turning back to the sterility of narrow nationalism.
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Brown, Tony ( 2008) ‘Ireland’s National Forum on Europe’ in Gavin Barrett ed.
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Tony Brown was an adviser to the Oireachtas Delegation to the European Convention and represents the Irish Labour Party on the Steering Committee of the National Forum on Europe. He is a founding member of the Institute of International and European Affairs.