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The Battle of Lisbon
An electorate is haunting Europe, and will continue to do so - the electorate of Ireland.
The people in the other EU countries were denied a vote on the Lisbon Treaty which was to establish the future nature of the European Union. But because of the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, a referendum had to be held in that country. So Ireland's democracy became a microcosm in which its social forces, while representing themselves and their differing conceptions of their country's national interests, also came to represent the conflicting political and economic forces within the EU as a whole. Had the Irish voted for acceptance, they would have vacated this position, a privileged but uncomfortable one for the people of a small nation. But they voted No, by a convincing margin and on a substantial turnout.
The Lisbon Treaty is- or would have been; as time will tell- a major step towards the emergence of the European Union, not merely as an economic and political bloc of countries, but potentially as a federal state power on the global stage, complete with a powerful president, a combined defence and external affairs minister, with its own army and navy giving it the potential to wage wars, with a requirement for member states to beef-up their military capacity, with an EU command structure able to take key decisions despite the objections of dissident member nations, and with an entrenchment of the drive towards neo-liberal economic competition.
Shocked by the outcome of the referendum, proponents of the Treaty are aghast that the tiny Irish 'tail' could be able to wag the huge dog of the European Union. But it is the governments of the other EU countries, through their refusal to allow their own peoples to have a vote on the issue, who have created this situation. It is one in which the three million Irish voters, by electing on the 12th of June not to accept the Lisbon Treaty, have thereby elected themselves into a position in which they can be key players in deciding the direction of the Union; not merely as the rejectors of the way forward proposed by the EU's dominant political, bureaucratic and economic establishment, but as the proposers of an alternative way forward.
Certainly the Irish government, which was not able to 'deliver' its people for the treaty, does not know what to do. As AFP reported:
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said Sunday there was no "obvious" way forward after his country's shock rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum that plunged the European Union into crisis.
"My job is make sure that our interests are not undermined, they are maintained, to defend them ... to try and find ways forward which (are) not obvious to me immediately," Cowen told RTE state radio.
But there is an obvious way forward, although neither the Irish government nor the 'big players' in the European Union are as yet willing to admit it. That is, to give in to the Irish people- to re-negotiate the treaty in order to make it acceptable to a majority of Irish voters; and thereby also producing a treaty which could make the EU into a better place for the majority of its citizens in all of the member states.
Sinn Fein, the only substantial party in Ireland to oppose the Lisbon Treaty, is now putting forward such an alternative. In its successful referendum campaign, Sinn Fein argued not against the EU as such, but rather for 'a better deal in Europe'. On June 18th, Sinn Fein issued a 32 page submission, detailing the changes to the Lisbon Treaty which the party argues that the Irish government should now seek to secure through negotiation. The Sinn Fein submission addresses four main areas of concern: democracy; Irish neutrality and the issue of EU militarism; workers rights; and public services. It also addresses matters with respect to trade, the developing world and the European Atomic Energy Treaty.
Although it is in coalition government in a part of the UK- the British-dominated territory of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland- in the Twenty Six Counties of the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein is a minority party, drawing its support mainly from the urban working class and the poorer people in rural areas.
Nevertheless, the No campaign, headed by Sinn Fein, won the referendum, which took place only in the Twenty Six Counties; of huge significance also is the fact that the vast majority of people in the Republic of Ireland, including even a big proportion of those who voted Yes in the referendum, share the view which Sinn Fein is voicing, that Ireland is now in a good position to secure a better deal through negotiation. The Irish Times reported on an opinion poll conducted after the referendum result was announced:
Some 76 per cent of the randomly selected 2,000 respondents aged 18 and over said they believed the result would put Ireland in a strong position to renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty.
Sinn Fein's proposal does include specific opt-outs for Ireland, but it mainly takes the form of a detailed set of amendments to the Lisbon Treaty itself; the changes it puts forward are substantial and would fundamentally alter the nature of the treaty. Thus it provides a basis upon which not only the people of Ireland, but the majority of people in all the EU member states, could hope and struggle for a better deal.
It is at the very least audacious, and at the most seems breathtakingly optimistic, to imagine that the Sinn Fein initiative can succeed. Yet, as is apparent from the two-day summit of the leaders of the EU states on the 19th and 20th of June, no other coherent and viable way forward has yet emerged. It is also apparent that the most powerful forces within the EU countries are divided; and it is when the powerful are divided that the weak can seize their opportunities to make progress.
The plots against Ireland
The idea that the Irish referendum could be re-run with a few minor changes, with the expectation that the electorate will vote the 'right' way the second time around, does not at present hold out much hope for the pro-treaty forces. This tactic worked six years ago when the Treaty of Nice, the last successful step towards the political and economic integration of the EU countries, required approval. But the Nice Treaty was defeated in Ireland in 2001 on a very low turnout of 34% the electorate, and was then approved in 2002 on a moderate 50% turnout. By contrast, the turnout on Thursday 12th June 2008 was a substantial 53% of the voters. And the Irish Labour Party, which campaigned on the Yes side in the recent referendum, has- at least for now- declared itself against such a cynical move. According to the Sunday Times on June 15th:
Eamon Gilmore [the Irish Labour Party Leader] told colleagues it would be an insult to put the same package to Irish voters again after a 110,000 majority rejected it. A source close to the Labour leader said: “Our party will say No to Lisbon II. We are opposed to any move to put this to the Irish voters a second time.
“There seems to be various moves afoot, both at home and abroad, to proceed with Lisbon in some form. Lisbon is dead and that is Eamon Gilmore’s clear position. We will oppose it if it comes before the Dail [parliament] and if it goes before the people we will campaign against it.”
Opposition from Labour would make it even more unlikely that the Irish government would get a Yes vote at the second time of asking.
Therefore, other plans have been floated. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the Irish Independent reported under the headline 'Franco-German move against Ireland':
Europe's "big two", Germany and France, have moved to isolate Ireland after the No vote to Lisbon.
France's Europe Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet said a search was on for a way to accommodate the Irish verdict without derailing plans to implement the treaty that aims to change the way the EU is run and gives the Union its first sitting president and foreign minister.
The Franco-German plan, to be refined at this week's summit, is to get all 26 EU states to ratify the treaty, to quarantine the Irish and then come up with some legal manoeuvre enabling the treaty to go ahead. It is not yet clear how, or if, this will succeed...
"We're sticking firmly to our goal of putting this treaty into effect," said the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, "so the process of ratification must continue."
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said: "We must carry on."
The proposal for a 'legal manouvre' would be better described as an illegal manouvre. As the the Irish Independent noted:
"The legal situation is clear,' said a European Commission official. "Unless the treaty is ratified by all, there is no treaty."
And there are further difficulties with this scheme:
The Franco-German refusal to countenance defeat may run into opposition in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, while in Britain the opposition Conservatives will continue to pound Prime Minister Gordon Brown over his refusal to stage a referendum.
Among the other options which have been canvassed is that of forcing the Irish government to tell its people that their country will be expelled from the EU unless they vote in a second referendum to accept the Lisbon Treaty. But this could backfire badly. The argument that by voting No, Ireland would thereby lose the economic gains which it has made through EU membership was already tried by the pro-Treaty parties during the recent referendum campaign; that tactic was seen as a form of blackmail, and rebounded against its proponents.
Should an attempt be made to raise the stakes through an official proposal to expel Ireland from the EU, one almost certain result would be to inspire solidarity with the Irish, and hostility to the French-German government position, from within other EU countries, including France and Germany themselves.
Thus following the summit of 19th and 20th of June, the main EU leaders, including Sarkozy of France, Merkel of Germany, and the current EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, all declare that they 'respect the Irish vote', while at the same time pressuring those EU states which have not yet done so to plod on with the ratification of a treaty which has been defeated by the Irish voters.
From constitution to treaty, in defiance of democracy
The previous incarnation of the Lisbon Treaty was the proposed EU Constitution; after this constitution was rejected by the French and Dutch voters in 2005, the changes were re-proposed, but this time as a treaty; a massive set of amendments to existing EU legislation, enshrining almost exactly the same changes which the defeated constitution would have enshrined. And the politicians and bureaucrats pledged that this time, the changes would be put only before the compliant parliaments, and not directly to the people. But, as the late Desmond Crotty established through his successful legal challenge to the Irish government in the late 1980s, a referendum must be held in Ireland on treaties affecting the constitution of that country.
In Britain, the Labour Party denies that the Lisbon Treaty is, in effect, the same thing as the EU Constitution; this denial is made in order to allow the ruling Labour Party government to renege on its pre-election promise that the UK would have its own referendum on that constitution. But, given that in Ireland a referendum was unavoidable, the Irish Labour Party- not currently in government but very influential in the trade union movement- while it sought to win support for the Lisbon Treaty, it has admitted the truth on this matter. As the Irish Independent reported:
Labour's Proinsias De Rossa [...] claimed the European Union should not be viewed as a "conspiracy", but recognised for its success in implementing initiatives which would never be achieved at local level. He also conceded that the treaty text included 95pc of the defeated European Constitution.
The 287 legalistically worded pages of the Lisbon Treaty do not make for easy reading. When Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowan was forced to admit that he had not suceeded in his efforts to read the treaty, but nevertheless recommended that the Irish should accept it, the Yes campaign suffered a serious loss of credibility. In the immediate backlash against the referendum result, commentators on the losing side sought a revenge by declaring that the majority No vote was an expression of ignorance and unfounded fear; they despaired that the common people had been allowed to decide on a document of such immense complexity, the ramifications of which could hardly be comprehended by the ordinary person. By implication, such decisions should be made by a clique of experts- a clique to which even a man so talented that he has become the prime minister of a European country could not aspire to enter.
But the Lisbon Treaty, while difficult, is not impenetrable. The people who wrote it knew what they were doing, and its main provisions are undeniable. It clearly does create the position of EU President, who can preside for two terms of five years in total- a much more influential role than the currently rotating 6 month presidency. It does create the very powerful post, to be appointed on the basis of qualified majority voting, of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. It defines the EU's high-minded principles for "action on the international scene". It sets out the provisions of the Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU, and it sets up the structures of the EU's military force. It allows the EU as a body to make deals with the World Trade Organisation. And the Treaty also 'slims down' the EU's decision-making process, allowing for 55% of member states, provided that most of the big nations are part of the majority, to over-rule the views of a minority of countries; and reducing the number of countries which are represented on the EU Commission at any time.
Further, the Lisbon Treaty is as notable for what it does not provide for as much as for what it does provide for. By removing national restrictions on the operation of market forces, the European Union creates the conditions for the living standards and collective rights of working class people, and the provision of public services, to be eroded by competition. The fact that the Treaty contains no explicit guarantees on workers' rights and public services is supposedly made up for by the mention in the treaty of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. But, as has already been shown by rulings of the EU court, that charter is toothless in the face of the priority of the right of capitalist firms to make a profit; which supersede trade union agreements negotiated at national level, and even supersede minimum wage legislation. And the clauses of the Charter of Fundamental Rights offer no protection whatsoever for public services.
In Sinn Fein's referendum campaign, ably headed by its Dublin MEP and party chairperson Mary Lou McDonald, the view was put forward that the 'race to the bottom' in public services and workers' rights can be stopped, and even that advances can be made. Against this, the Irish Labour Party argued that very little can be done in the face of the dominant forces in the European Union. As the campaign drew to a close, the Irish Independent quoted Labour Party spokesman Proinsias De Rossa:
"What we have here now is Plan B. It seems to me that it makes entire common sense to recognise the political reality in the European Union.
"When we started this process in 2001, there were 11 social democratic governments in power out of 15 EU member states. There are now 17 centre right governments out of 27.
"It is entirely politically naive to argue that you can reject Lisbon and get a better deal for working people out of a completely changed scenario. It's not possible."
The Labour MEP said there was "no way" Italian President Silvio Berlusconi would allow increased provision for workers if there was a renegotiation of the treaty.
"We would be lucky to hold on to the social provisions already negotiated if there was a renegotiation, so it is irresponsible of those, who know better. Some of those who are calling for renegotiation do know better," he said.
In the end, the Irish people placed more trust in those who offered more hope.
Their adversity, our opportunity
The negative aspects of the Lisbon Treaty in terms of the prospects of the majority of people have, of course, no relevance to the struggle between the powerful right wing forces in the EU countries, which the concequences of the Irish vote have brought out into the open. The result of the referendum of 12th June was a setback for the grand ambitions of the political and economic elites of Germany and France in particular; while the right wing euroskeptic forces, most prominently in Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic, are now emboldened. The Murdoch media empire is rejoicing in the Irish result and has increased the vehemence of its euroskepticism; Rupert Murdoch's British tabloid The Sun has been carrying a series of stories attacking "Pint-sized French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a Napoleon wannabe" for his role in the preparations for the EU's naval force.
Ireland has provided a catalyst for these divisions, whose theatre is Europe; yet the underlying issue is that of the nature of the relationship with the United States of America. The Lisbon Treaty would enhance the position of the EU, with Germany and France at its core, as the body through which ones economic, political and military relationship with the USA must be conducted. This reduces the potential for individual countries to seek strategic gains through their direct relationships with the United States, thereby enhancing their own status both globally and within the EU, and diminishing the relative power of the French-German axis.
Britain's continuing global ambitions, as demonstrated by its joint invasion of Iraq, together with with the USA and against the wishes of France and Germany, depend on its 'special' relationship with the United States of America. The elites of the Czech Republic and Poland, which- against the wishes of the majority in those nations- are allowing their countries to be the sites of the USA's new 'missile defense' bases, fear the possibility of an improved relationship between Germany and Russia.
It must be remarked also that the economic development of Ireland in the last two decades, which the pro-Lisbon side in the referendum campaign portrayed as dependent on Irish membership of the EU, has been just as dependent on the USA. Through its policy of low corporation tax, Ireland became an off-shore platform for US-based manufacturing and IT companies, which could then sell their Irish made products to the other EU countries. Germany has not concealed its view that this is a form of unfair competition. On the No side in the referendum campaign, the Libertas organisation of multi-millionaire businessman Declan Ganley highlighted the threat to the Irish economy should the French and German governments succeed in their drive for harmonisation of corporate tax rates throughout the EU.
With these strong right wing forces now more openly divided, Europe's weak left wing, which has enjoyed little but retreat, defeat and disarray since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has a possibility to regroup and advance. The struggles in Latin America, including the survival of Cuba and the revolutionary developments in Venezuela and other countries, have not only proved that history did not end in 1991; they have also provided a healthy focus for solidarity with peoples who are able to move forward despite adversity.
Now, an opportunity presents itself in our European home; and it arises at a moment when the ideology of the neo-liberal market- through its very success in promoting deregulated global competition and thereby creating a triple crisis of finance, food and fuel- is destroying its own claim to be the deliverer of prosperity to the people. Capitalism faces something far worse than a credit crunch- it faces a credibility crunch.
In this context, Sinn Fein's proposal for a re-negotiated EU Treaty- the obvious, reasonable and moderate response to the Irish victory in the Battle of Lisbon- can become a focus for all who see the interests of the people as more important than the arid principle of competition, and for all who seek peace rather than militarism. The fact that the main enemies of progress in this struggle have also become the opposers of democracy is a strange and wonderful sign, a signal that some success- for the left, representing the majority of the people- may at last be possible.