‘Our destiny is determined by benevolent and somewhat patronising philosopher kings’

Agriculture Constitutional Affairs EU Europe International Points East & West Politics UK Politics Western Europe

It is no mystery that the structure of the European Union – with its largely unelected officials handing down sweeping regulations and laws to the member states through a complicated process that few in Europe fully understand – suffers from a certain democratic deficiency. When it tried to adopt a European constitution that would revolutionise the works and powers of its institutions, the document was undermined by two referendums, in France and the Netherlands, where the public voted overwhelmingly against.

The cumbersome 485-page constitution was then restyled into a lighter version – the Lisbon Treaty – which came in at 300 pages. The beauty of this cosmetic exercise was, the thinking ran, that a treaty can be passed by parliaments, which are considerably more enthusiastic about the EU’s expanding powers than the ordinary citizens whose approval is required to ratify a Europe-wide constitution.

The problem with this plan was that the Irish contribution required a popular referendum for any treaty to be approved. Predictably, last June , Ireland voted against. Whatever the substance of the Lisbon Treaty, there is no doubt that Europe needs restructuring. The question is how – and judging by the way the popular will responded to the two documents, this is not the way.

As the International Herald Tribune noted in a news piece on the day of the vote, “[w]ith 287 pages of vintage bureaucratese, the Lisbon treaty, which would, among other things, give the European Union its first full-time president and a powerful foreign policy chief, is hard to explain. Few voters fully understand the treaty or even want to try.”

Much was and will be said of the reasons for a “No” vote – including the arcane language of the treaty, its impossible length and the democratic deficit that accompanied its drafting after its unlucky and now defunct predecessor was voted down. Another reason should be added to the list. Only a few days after the Irish vote, the BBC reported that the European Commission found itself bogged down in the following controversy: “The European Commission says it wants to loosen the rules that prevent knobbly fruit and vegetables being sold alongside more shapely examples.” Why a regulation on the twists and turns of a parsnip or a cucumber would have afflicted EU bureaucrats is itself worth pondering – and perhaps a reflection of the EU’s sometimes excessive regulatory tendencies. But this is not the strangest thing of all. That would be the fact that “the Commission says its efforts to simplify EU legislation have been resisted by some countries”.

Nor was the Commission trying to introduce radical change – limiting its sudden deregulation urge to only 10 out of 26 agricultural products on which it thought it necessary to determine shape, weight and size, among other regulated aspects of the fruits and vegetables in question. Take for example Regulation 1757/2003, which amended Regulation 1292/81. 1292/81 was about courgettes, leeks, and aubergines. But the EU “realized” that a separate regulation was needed for courgettes only: “In the interest of clarity, the rules on courgettes should be separated from those on other products,” recites the regulation with a certain gravitas. So to simplify matters, more regulations were passed.

And so it goes, regulating courgettes’ shape, imperfections, softness of the seeds and who knows what else. It’s riveting. Any wonder the Irish voted no?

Parliaments may now soldier on as if the Irish referendum never happened – the UK parliament did so on June 18 – but the problem remains. Many in Europe feel alienated from a political process whose arcane language and Byzantine rules they find hard to understand, let alone embrace. And if Lisbon comes into force, this problem will only be compounded by the further transfer of sovereignty away from member states, in the critical field of foreign policy. True, it is unlikely that Europe will dispatch its mighty armies to the battlefield any time soon. But even if it is not the lives of the nation’s soldiers that is at stake, the nature of foreign policy is ultimately that: supreme national interests may be put in jeopardy by leaders and officials who were not elected, based on rules and procedures most citizens have not given their assent to, let alone read or understood.

The Irish “No” was almost certainly not to the substance of the Lisbon Treaty – not enough people understood what it entailed – but to the opaqueness and lack of democracy characterising EU decision-making on issues that affect our daily lives, our cherished traditions and our ability to rule for ourselves. The Eureaucrats’ regulatory fury has meant, increasingly, that our destiny is determined by benevolent – and somewhat patronising – philosopher kings, who know, better than the people, what’s good for them. Saying no, Ireland may not have put the last nail in the coffin of the Lisbon Treaty. But it has told our leaders that the future of democracies cannot be decided by bureaucrats alone.