Let’s get it out of the way: yes, the idea of a united Europe has suffered a lot recently.
The rerun of the Irish referendum, like the referenda in France, Denmark and Holland, failed to transmit an image of nations working together happily to create a powerful Über-state based on shared interests and values. Rather, it seemed as if a hollow, perhaps even dated concept of unity was getting the better of them, a Kafkaesque bureaucratic monster from Brussels was
forcing them to join in and swallow their concerns. So far, so bad — but the real question is: who is the culprit?
The oddity of this moment in European history was obvious when I arrived in Ireland on the day of the vote. The streets of Dublin were plastered with simplistic slogans from both sides, happily proposing opposite actions for the same reason: “Vote yes if you wish to keep your jobs.” Or: “Vote no if you wish to keep your jobs.”
This was to be a desperate referendum about the economic crisis. It had little to do with whether or not Ireland wanted to take up “its rightful place at the heart of Europe” (as various editorials claimed —a strange wish for an island so far from the Continent). Still less was the vote about the stated purpose of the Lisbon Treaty, “to enhance the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the European Union and to improve its coherence”.
In the end, the result showed that Ireland didn’t want to become another Iceland.
But the peculiar character of this referendum became even more palpable after the vote. When the votes had been counted, the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, appeared before assembled journalists, two thirds of them from abroad. He posed next to the Irish tricolour, while his wife stood next to him and was almost entirely covered by the European Union flag, vigorously fluttering in the brisk autumn wind. I couldn’t help feeling that I had entered a simulated parallel universe.
When Cowen spoke of “a resounding Yes” and said that the people of Ireland wished to join Europe “to work together on our future and the future of our children”, he spoke as if this had been a deeply felt ideological decision that would bring overwhelming socio-political change to his country.
His speech, delivered in English and then in Gaelic, seemed not simply scripted but theatrically staged. Yet it lacked passion, confidence and a sense of urgency. His words fell flat. Cowen did not speak as a leader but as a functionary, mouthing slogans written by someone else. A sense that this was a serious vote that really mattered — socially and culturally — was all but absent.
The tone in the parks and pubs of Dublin was that of disappointment. Dubliners are always up for spontaneous outbursts of exhilaration — think of James Joyce’s “epiphanies”. But this time they didn’t mince their words. More often than not, the reaction I heard was: “Disaster, a real disaster.” One man was even ready to admit — through clenched teeth — that he wished “the Brits would take us over again”.
The atmosphere was clear on the rainy evening after the vote: it felt as if something that had already been agreed upon was being confirmed. And even those relieved by the positive outcome sounded muted: “Now that’s done,” said a French journalist, and then sipped the last of his Guinness.
So what did happen here? Was this “Yes” the result of a pan-European conspiracy taking advantage of a country’s temporary weakness? “But the Irish have fought so hard for their sovereignty, isn’t it sad that they are now giving it all up?” said an English friend.
There is something to this British quirk of suffering Europaranoia — an almost anarchic instinct that causes them to refuse to put up with bureaucracy. This is precisely what is needed now. For what I saw in Ireland was indeed a sad moment: a vote under duress that allowed the inevitable onward march of a large machine.
Before leaving Dublin for London, I walked through the quiet streets on a chilly Sunday morning, until I found myself at the statue of the Anglo-Irish philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke. “There is something in the detested French constitution that envenoms every thing it touches,” Burke said about the French Revolution. I wondered: Isn’t this also true for the Lisbon Treaty? As it now stands: perhaps — but the culprit for the present disillusionment is the bureaucratic shape of the treaty, not the noble idea of Europe.