Monday, 5 October 2009

Ireland Rejects British Influence

As news breaks that the UK will soon be shut out of a new G4 group of major economies and could lose its seat on the board of the IMF, the bizarre reaction to the Irish referendum by much of the British press continues to look more and more out of touch with the realities of the modern world.

Europe-wide ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is imminent following Ireland’s massive endorsement of the EU reform agreement with a ‘yes’ vote of 67%. It looks as if Czech President Vaclav Klaus has lost his nerve and is ready to end his grandstanding talk of refusing to sign the ratification passed by the Czech parliament – a move which would have been constitutionally questionable anyway. So barring any unforeseen complications, it looks like this long effort to reform the EU to something more appropriate for its current size has been completed.

If the British media is to be believed, after rejecting the treaty in the first referendum in June 2008 Ireland voted yes this time around out of fear. Terrified by their vulnerability in the global economic downturn, the British narrative goes, the Irish have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting dominance by Brussels, having lost confidence in their own ability to govern themselves. Under this narrative, the Irish made a courageous choice in the 2008 referendum when the treaty was, as the British press frequently puts it, “resoundingly defeated” (never mind the fact that the 2008 ‘no’ vote actually just squeaked by with 53%). Apparently in 2008 a slight majority indicated massive popular will by courageous people against an oppressive super-state, but in 2009 a large majority is the illegitimate result of misguided voters swayed by fear and intimidation. The Irish, it would seem, are only right when they agree with the British.

What is never mentioned in the British press is that after the June 2008 result Ireland has been given a basket of concessions and guarantees – the most significant being that the proposal to shrink the size of the European Commission from 27 commissioners to a more manageable size of around 20 has been abandoned. Under existing treaties each country is guaranteed a commissioner in the EC – even though commissioners are not supposed to represent national interests but rather fulfil a specific role of expertise such as trade, environment or energy. The large number of new member states that have joined in the past 10 years has meant there is now an excessive number of commissioners, with new remits for them being invented such as “Commissioner for Information Society and Media” and “Commissioner for Multilingualism”.

However even though it is supposed to be irrelevant which countries these commissioners come from that does not always prove true in practice, and the Lisbon solution to rotate a certain number of Commission seats between the small member states had caused some concern. There was a lot of misinformation spread in the 2008 ‘no’ campaign in Ireland, but this issue was one of the verifiable legitimate concerns that the ‘no’ campaign had – fearing the treaty would lessen the influence of small states in the EU’s executive body. So they won this concession, there will remain 27 commissioners.

While it is true that the actual text of the treaty has not changed (doing so would have required re-ratification by all 27 states and would have held up passage by another five years) the Irish have been given binding guarantees that these changes will be inserted at the time of the next Europe-wide ratification issue, likely the accession of Iceland and Croatia.

The British press also doesn’t mention that this time around there was a much more extensive education campaign on what is actually contained in the treaty – a response to the fact that the exit polling in the 2008 referendum revealed that the most frequently cited reason for voting ‘no’ was a lack of information on what the treaty is. Turnout this time around was also about 10% higher than before.

The British roots of the ‘no’ campaign were also more exposed this time around, making the claim that a ‘no’ vote was a vote for the spirit of dead Irish republicans seem laughable. As the Guardian pointed out in an article last week before the vote, the ‘no’ campaign was full of Brits who flew over to urge a rejection of the treaty, led by Tory lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. All this prompted fears that a ‘no’ vote would result in what Irish Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called a “two-speed Europe” where there would be “a mainland Europe and the British Isles, where we fall under the influence of Britain." So much for a ‘no’ vote honouring the dead Republicans who fought against the British.

The Tories’ Eurochaos

The ‘yes’ vote was exceedingly bad timing for British Conservative leader David Cameron, as it means the Conservative Party conference this week will be dominated by the ‘Europe issue’, a quagmire that continues to cause rifts between different factions of the party. Cameron had promised to hold a referendum on the treaty in the UK if it remained unpassed by the time they (most likely) come into power next April. However now it looks like the treaty’s changes will be adopted by the EU by the end of the year – and the British parliament already ratified the treaty.

The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party is demanding that Cameron hold a referendum on the treaty anyway, asking the public whether Britain should retroactively pull out of a treaty it already signed and which has already gone into effect. The problem is this would not only be illegal under international law, it would also be impossible. If Cameron were to hold such a referendum and the result is ‘no’ (which is the position he has advocated), there is no longer a ‘treaty’ to vote on, the treaty has become the EU. So at that stage, a ‘no’ vote on the Treaty would be a ‘no’ vote on the EU, and the British would have to secede from the union.

This is not an issue Cameron wants to put to a referendum, as the risks of a ‘no’ vote would be too great. Britain pulling out of the EU, as I’ve written about before, would mean it would have to completely renegotiate almost all of its international treaties in trade, labour and markets. It would very likely cause an immediate collapse in the pound, and investors would flee the UK like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

So Cameron has an uncomfortable reality to deal with this week. Trying to throw a bone to the Eurosceptic wing, he has hinted ahead of the conference that the Tories will launch a “public consultation” instead of a referendum, with the aim of moving significant powers away from Brussels and back to Westminster. Party insiders are saying he will announce this week an intention to “repatriate” powers involving social powers, employment and justice to a national level. Of course what he effectively would be asking for are more UK opt-outs, which would be almost impossible to attain retroactively, requiring the approval of all 27 member states. Many of those member states would surely question why the UK deserves special treatment, and would laugh any Tory who demanded such a concession out of the room. Considering Cameron has already enraged the French and German conservative governments by leaving the mainstream centre-right EPP grouping in the European Parliament to form a new alliance with the Eastern European hard right, he has few friends in Brussels or other Western European capitals these days.

UK Shut Out of World Bodies

All of this Tory talk seems particularly incongruous with reality considering that just this weekend it emerged that, following the death of the G8, the US is planning to form a new G4 group of the world’s leading economies that will not include the UK. The new group would be composed of the US, China, Japan and the Eurozone. The Eurozone, remember, does not include the UK because it does not use the Euro currency. Alistair Darling has reportedly been begging for the new group to instead include all of the EU rather than the Eurozone, but US officials have reportedly rebuffed this request saying that the member needs to be able to control a unified monetary policy. The news comes at the same time that Britain is fighting to maintain its seat on the board of the International Monetary Fund.

It was amusing to see the Daily Mail try to spin this as Gordon Brown’s fault, rather than the fault of the isolationist impulse the Daily Mail and papers like it have championed over the past two decades. The fact that it is inevitable that the UK by itself will not be able to justify its seat on these international bodies in the 21st century seems to be lost on them. The paper declines to mention the fact that were the UK on the euro, it would have a seat on this new G4 body and could maintain a board seat in the IMF. Nor does it mention that France and Italy are also in the same boat now that the G8 is being dissolved, yet they will have a major place in the G4 and IMF because they are part of the Eurozone. The comments below the story would be hilarious if they weren’t so jaw-droppingly ignorant, with each commenter deciding that this news is somehow evidence that the UK should leave the EU. Come again?

It will be interesting to see how the ‘Europe issue’ is handled at this week’s Conservative Party conference. Considering Cameron’s populist tendencies, he could probably just get up on the podium and say ‘Europe’ and have the whole hall boo and jeer in order to have a successful day. But Cameron’s crowd-pleasing rhetoric on Europe is on a collision coarse with reality. His recent defection from the EPP is probably but a first instance of this.

Hopefully, Europe can now put this treaty nonsense behind it and focus on more important things, getting on to the real work of guiding the continent through the economic recovery and leading the world in the effort to combat climate change. That is, if the Tories can let a sleeping dog lie.


Seamus said...

This is an excellent post. I too have been frustrated with how the British media has portrayed the Irish referendum, and I am glad that Ireland has rejected English attempts to meddle in Ireland's affairs. The EU is what has allowed Ireland to emerge from England's shadow and be independently sucessful. Ireland does NOT want to be led by the English with them down a dead end road. Ireland wants a FUTURE!

Tony Earnshaw said...

Gulf Stream Blues seems to have been extraordinarily selective in the particular British (not English) media that it has chosen to quote on this occasion.

Rather than concentrate on the Eurosceptic Tory press, sampling from a broader swathe for this post would have provided a more accurate picture of current British thinking. And the BBC coverage, in particular, has been extraordinarily wide-ranging.

Dave Keating said...

To be sure the print media has been the worst offender when it comes to reporting on Europe, but I don't think the BBC has been exactly steller either (otherwise British people in general would be better informed about what the treaty actually is, no?). And mischaracterisation of the treaty is not just limited to the Tory-leaning papers, the Guardian and the Independent have also consistently mischaracterised it.

Most of the British papers across the spectrum this weekend identified the economic crisis as the main reason for Ireland's change of heart, and there has been little mention of the guarantees given to the country before the second vote.

Grahnlaw said...

The EU member states have to get the institutions up and running in accordance with the Lisbon Treaty (democratically approved in all 27 states) in order to get back to business.

The UK under a Conservative government will become a peripheral nuisance in run of the mill business, but if Britain remains a member it will be a severe headache for the rest of Europe.