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Thu. June 20, 2024
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The Irish "No" of Hope
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By Jens F. Laurson & George A. Pieler Parochial polemics, misinformation and propaganda that feed on citizens' ignorance and distrust. These, according to some supporters of the European Union (E.U.), are what caused Ireland's electorate on Friday to vote decisively against the Treaty of Lisbon, a document formerly known as the European Constitution that lays out a number of centralizing governmental reforms, provided it's approved by all 27 member states. Now E.U. officials are convening in Brussels for a two-day summit to tweak the treaty and assuage its critics, which include not only Ireland but also the Czech Republic and Poland. Those champions of the E.U. might not be wrong about Irish motives for shooting down the treaty. But there are other, better reasons why 53.4% of voters rejected all things the E.U. has brought to bear. Consider precedent. When voters in France and the Netherlands voted down the original E.U. constitution, European leaders assembled to give the treaty a cosmetic makeover, changed its name and guaranteed that the mistake of putting a matter of this magnitude to a public vote would not be repeated. Only the tenacious Irish wouldn't keep their people out of this. Their constitution demanded a referendum--and the Irish promptly said Go hifreann leat! (a Gaelic phrase that translates roughly as "To hell with you"). They had some practice in that too; in 2001, only Ireland voted down the Treaty of Nice, which supporters claimed contained necessary modifications to streamline E.U. legislative procedures and detractors claimed usurped some power from its individual sovereignties. In the end, Ireland scored some special assurances and Europe went on with business as usual--ignoring this first shot across the bow. The Treaty of Lisbon is supposed to make the E.U. function more efficiently, make it more "democratic" and distribute countries' voting rights more fairly. Worthy goals--assuming the E.U. will be more efficient at doing good and refrain from making inane decisions. The idea of greater democracy is laudable too, but it is difficult to escape the irony that the path to introducing more democracy demands erasing all traces of a democratic process. Another touch of irony: The very treaty the Irish turned down last week would have granted them the right to opt out of the E.U. Over the last week, Europe's politicians--in particular, the leaders of Germany and France--have staged apoplectic fits about the Irish rejection and are working busily to sidestep popular will. They would do better, however, to consider why the Irish voted the way they did. Recent polls data indicate that most Irish support the E.U. even if they voted no, and 40% cited not understanding the treaty as their primary reason for voting against it. But whether Ireland's no vote was instinctive or informed, it was actually quite rational. Though the island nation has long been at the receiving end of the E.U.'s structural funds gravy train, its economic success in recent years has come not only because of its E.U. affiliation, but also, in part, in spite of it. Ireland's low corporate tax and the free movement of labor from Eastern European member states made it the fastest-growing economy in the E.U. The argument that Ireland's opposition to the Lisbon treaty masks a lack of appreciation for the E.U.'s many benefits just doesn't cut it. Gratitude for past achievements cannot be a reason to tolerate present ineptitude. Ireland's low corporate tax especially irks Germany and France, whose politicians find the idea of tax competition among E.U. member states practically immoral. Those who suggested that eventually Ireland's tax authority would be undermined by those countries--forcing Ireland to adjust its tax to German and French levels--exaggerated that threat, but they have a point. Irish Catholics fear being forced to legalize abortions--and, someday, gay marriage. While neither is in any way part of the Lisbon treaty, their eventual inclusion is not so outrageous an idea, for the morality of Brussels is often prescribed upon all the E.U.'s members, flaunting the principle of subsidiarity every step of the way. Having had their share of foreign rule, the Irish can't abide the idea or even the possibility of bureaucratic interference in their lives. Ireland's vote should be a wake-up call that the greatness of Europe, an undeniable economic and geopolitical success, lies in its openness and flexibility. Notwithstanding the mess the E.U. and its governing body have become, the Lisbon treaty would improve its functionality by increasing rigidity and strengthening the parliament. By postponing the treaty's ratification, the Irish vote might allow a fresh look at Brussels' most egregious flaws: unworkable compromises and an addiction to legislation. There is nothing in daily, social, economic or political life that European officials feel they can't improve with new legislation. Whether it's the size of flags at soccer games, the price of cellphone roaming charges or the capacity of a farmer's manure silo, parliamentarians aim to spread their goodwill everywhere. If Europe is to become a centralized state, it will do so by evolution, not dictate. Ireland hasn't boycotted a great idea. It has simply given the continent some much-needed room to breathe. Jens F. Laurson is editor in chief of the International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation.

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