September 19th, 2009


Lisbon again

Back in February last year, I wrote a post on the Lisbon Treaty, outlining my view that it is basically a shuffling of the institutional architecture which has little impact on the average EU citizen. Since then, the Irish people voted against the Treaty by 53% to 47% on 18 June 2008; and the Irish government has got certain points of clarification on the Treaty from the rest of the EU, and is holding another referendum on 2 October, less than a fortnight away. Also, the German constitutional court has said some interesting things about the Treaty and the European Union.

Isn't it undemocratic to have a second referendum? I find it a peculiar argument to say that there can only ever be one referendum on a particular topic. I'm not especially in favour of them anyway, but if you like referendums in the first place then it seems odd to object when you get more than one. (Unless, of course, you only like them when you agree with the results.)

So has the Lisbon Treaty been amended to take the concerns of Irish voters into consideration? No. One concrete change to the EU has been made as a result of last year's referendum (or rather, one proposed change has been dropped), but I'll get to that in a moment. At their June 2009 summit, the EU's leaders made a decision that the Lisbon Treaty doesn't affect a) the peculiar provisions of the Irish constitution on abortion, the family and education, b) taxation and c) Irish neutrality. Since this is just re-stating what was already in the Treaty, it isn't an amendment (and while the decision will be incorporated into EU law eventually, that won't be until the next new member state joins).

So how does that change things? Well, if you are an Irish voter who voted against Lisbon last year in the misinformed belief that it would lead to the EU interfering in Irish policy on abortion, taxation and/or defence, you can feel reassured. (If you are an Irish voter who hopes that the EU might in future interfere in these issues, not so much; but the Lisbon Treaty was never going to be much use to you in that regard anyway, and see below on the German Constitutional Court.) I note that the Eurobarometer post-referendum opinion poll (here, page 19) found that a total of 14% of "No" voters voted against Lisbon because of their (misinformed) concerns about one or other of these issues. That's not a lot but it would be enough to produce a different result.

And that's all? No. There's also a declaration on workers' rights, which has even less legal force than the decision on abortion, taxation and neutrality, but may give comfort to those who fear the EU is a neo-liberal capitalist conspiracy. Though I am uncertain how many of those individuals will be reassured by statements made by the 27 EU heads of state and government, who presumably are key co-conspirators. Also the Irish government made a further declaration on neutrality and defence, which of course isn't binding on the other 26 governments.

So there is no concrete change? Actually there is one very important concrete change, but the decision on that was made in December 2008 rather than June 2009. The current rules (the Nice Treaty) compel the EU to reduce the number of European Commissioners when they are next appointed (which will be in the next few months). As a result of the Irish referendum vote, however, the EU has decided to keep one Commissioner per member state (a concern cited by 6% of No voters in the Eurobarometer survey). But it cannot do this unless the Lisbon Treaty is passed (because Lisbon gives the member states discretion to decide how many Commissioners there are; Nice simply says there should be fewer). So there is a very immediate and practical consequence of a "No" vote on 2 October - fewer European Commissioners.

Does that matter? I think so. I have never bought the argument that the European Commission with 27+ members is too large to function - sitting as I do in my office beside its headquarters, it seems to function just fine. There is plenty of work to go around. I admit that I scoffed when the new Romanian Commissioner was given the portfolio of multilingualism, which sounds terribly waffly, but I was wrong to do so; he supervises 15% of the Commission's total workforce, DG Translation being the largest single directorate-general - it's not glamorous but someone has to keep things moving. Given that the work is there, and that Commissioners, for all that they are supposed to be above such things, are in fact important representatives of national interests in Brussels, it makes sense to have one per member state.

The German Constitutional Court? Ah yes. This actually makes much more difference than the European Council declarations. Germany's Constitutional Court has made a ruling on the Lisbon Treaty which basically kills off any idea of a European federal super-state. A lot of my German Euro-federalist friends have been looking down in the mouth since the ruling came out on 30 June, and now that I've read it I can see why. Key quote: "authorisation to transfer sovereign powers to the European Union [is] granted under the condition that the sovereign statehood of a constitutional state is maintained". The court essentially allows the German government to sign up to Lisbon but only if the level of democratic scrutiny of Lisbon and of future EU developments is enhanced, and also makes it clear that there are limits to how far European integration can go. The ruling should also dismay Lisbon's opponents, however, as the court concludes that Lisbon itself is not a threat to German sovereignty, as long as it has been properly approved by the German democratic system. (Which has since happened.)

So, the bottom line is... As I said last time, the changes proposed in the Lisbon Treaty are indeed mostly improvements, and certainly will make life easier for those (a small, self-selected and privileged minority, admittedly) who have to operate within European politics. Voting against it doesn't kill the EU, or globalisation, or anything like that; it just perpetuates the existing machinery. The Irish government is somewhat over-selling the guarantees they have received from the other member states, but then the "No" campaign shamelessly exaggerated the effects of the Treaty last year and continues to do so.

Missile defence

I have always boggled at the fact that anyone could see any merits in the proposed US ballistic missile defence system. The more I looked into it, the more convinced I became that it was a technology that would never work against a threat that did not exist. So I was glad to see that President Obama has cancelled the proposed deployment of the missile defence system to Eastern Europe. This isn't about giving in to Russia or Iran; it's about not throwing good money after bad. Excellent analysis here.

September Books 13) Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, by R[obin] Dudley Edwards

I am cranking up my reading on sixteenth-century Ireland, and decided to go back to basics. This is essentially a narrative survey, based on exhaustive sampling of the surviving primary sources, of what happened politically in Ireland from the death of the seventh Earl of Kildare in 1513 to the Flight of the Earls in 1607. I am still getting my head around the various shifts in religious policy, particularly during the reign of Elizabeth I, but this gives a good skeleton on which to hang the meat of any future work I do.

I was less convinced by Dudley Edwards' subtitle, "The Destruction of Hiberno-Norman Civilisation". It is beyond dispute that in so far as there was such a thing, this period saw its destruction, but he doesn't really illustrate why or what Hiberno-Norman civilisation actually was. It would be more accurate to describe the book as tracking the growth of colonialism as the active British policy in Ireland, which it does very well.