Sarko's Folly

Sarko's Folly

Nicolas Sarkozy and other European leaders are trying desperately to coerce voters toward a united Europe. Will their scheme work?


When the issue is consolidating power in Brussels, the European Union never gives up. The Lisbon Treaty was defeated in a June referendum in Ireland, but Dublin has promised to hold a revote next year. Will the Irish succumb to the EU's blandishments?

The most striking feature about the controversy over the treaty is not whether it deserves ratification. Lisbon offers a complicated restructuring of the EU that concentrates more power in Brussels. The decision is for the Europeans to make based on their assessment of the proper role for continental government. Most extraordinary is the effort being waged to ensure that the common people who pay the bills have virtually no say in the form of government under which they live.


Nations and governments typically rely on referenda to ratify constitutions. But not in the European Union. It started down that road three years ago and struck out in both France and the Netherlands. So the EU jiggled a few provisions, renamed the document a treaty, and abandoned popular ballots. Convincing twenty-seven parliaments appeared to be a lot easier than getting a majority of a half-billion people to assent; indeed, polls suggest that voters in half of the EU members would reject Lisbon. "There will be no treaty at all if we had a referendum in France," admitted French (and outgoing EU) President Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, the Irish constitution required a vote, and a majority of Irish said "no" in June. Brussels erupted in weeping and gnashing of teeth. "How could they!" gasped the Eurocratic elite, which had worked so hard to prevent anyone from voting on the issue. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäeuble suddenly turned populist: "a few million Irish cannot decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans," he insisted, as if any of the other 491 million Europeans had been allowed to vote on the treaty, let alone had voted yes.

Since approval of the Lisbon Treaty must be unanimous, the Irish vote theoretically killed the measure. But Eurocrats instinctively treated Ireland's nay as an obstacle to overcome rather than a decision to respect. Observed Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission: "I believe the treaty is alive and we should now try to find a solution."

Then began six months of scheming to circumvent the Irish decision. As Mats Persson of the think tank Open Europe observed:

Ever since the Irish voted No to the Lisbon Treaty in June, politicians in Ireland and across Europe have tried to find ways to force this unwanted document through-against the clear will of the people. It's a sad day for democracy when Europe's politicians gang up on their citizens, rather than trying to win over their trust.

The options of revamping or abandoning the treaty were considered too ludicrous to even consider. A new continental elite encompassing bureaucratic, economic and political interests had decided that Europe needed a more powerful, consolidated government and the people were going to get just that.

European politicians, officials, activists and commentators covered the Irish with obloquy and smothered Dublin with attention. Observed Daniel Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament, in the Daily Telegraph,

this is about keeping the project going-a project from which millions now earn their living. The EU employs more than 170,000 officials, on handsome and largely untaxed retainers. And for every formal Eurocrat there are dozens of fellow travelers: the Europe officers retained by every local council, large corporation and NGO. Their salaries might not be paid directly by Brussels but their livelihoods depend on the process of integration.

The conventional wisdom in Brussels and across the capitals of Europe is clear: the Irish voters were largely ignorant and had been easily misled by ideologues, who may have been-in the view of the conspiracy-minded-financed by America's CIA. Wrote Mary Ellen Synon in the Daily Mail: "Welcome to the European Union's version of democracy: Keep voting until you get it right." A "do-over" poll was considered to be the preferred strategy, assuming the correct result would be had.

If that wasn't possible-the Irish government warned that the voters might not be easily cowed-then Eurocrats suggested a variety of steps, such as having the Irish Parliament read Ireland's constitution more narrowly and ratify the treaty or even kicking Dublin out of the EU, leaving Ireland with some form of associate status. With the first risky for the Irish government and the second unlikely to win the necessary EU approval, a revote carried the day. To help nudge Irish voters along Brussels will give Dublin various "opt-outs" from the treaty and preserve a commissioner for every country to allay the fears of the Irish public. Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin cites the accord as "a very significant achievement for our country."

Actually, what Dublin won is a present political commitment to make future legal changes, probably through the Croatian Accession Treaty, expected in 2010 or 2011-after Ireland ratifies the Lisbon Treaty later this year. Whether the promised concessions actually make much difference is debatable. Lorraine Mullally, Open Europe's director, warns: "The Lisbon Treaty represents a huge transfer of powers away from citizens to the EU-in areas as diverse as justice and home affairs, the economy, and even foreign policy." She dismisses the changes, warning that "The Treaty will remain intact, with all that that entails-including a massive loss of power to the EU." Thus, in her view the alleged compromise is "a charade to make it look as though people's concerns about the treaty have been addressed."

How this will turn out is anyone's guess. Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen says he is "confident" of victory. President Sarkozy lauded Cowen: "we will make these adjustments, and the Irish government has courageously promised to hold a new referendum of the people before the end of 2009."

However, Declan Ganley, head of the group Libertas, which led the "no" campaign earlier this year, denounced the "bullying" of the Irish people and vowed to battle on: "The Irish government and the powerful elite in Brussels are showing utter contempt for the democratic decision of the Irish people in rejecting the Lisbon Treaty. Not one sentence will change in a ‘new version.' Some non-legally binding texts will be added in an attempt to fool the people." Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin of the opposition Sinn Féin party called the government "arrogant" and denounced deal.

The incoming EU president, Czech President Václav Klaus, is a Euroskeptic, under attack by President Sarkozy and others for refusing to fly the EU flag at his official residence, the Prague Castle. If Ireland again says no, there is no obvious plan B, especially since the United Kingdom faces a national election by 2010, in which the Conservatives may take power-and they have promised to hold a referendum on Lisbon if it has not yet taken effect. Yet countries like France vow to block any further expansion unless the treaty is in effect. A potential deadlock looms.

But the more interesting question is, even if all twenty-seven EU members ratify the accord, will it matter? If the goal was simply slightly improved management, the Lisbon Treaty, which, among many other things, would create a permanent EU president and de facto foreign minister while dropping some of the national commissioners, would be hardly worth the fuss. The real objective, at least of figures like Nicolas Sarkozy, is to-setting aside personal ambition-create a quasi-nation state capable of competing with the United States, Russia, and China.

Whether that's a worthwhile goal is for the Europeans to decide. Whether Lisbon would have that effect is not at all clear.

Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin argued: "If Europe wants to be more influential in global affairs then it needs better co-ordination and the implementation of the reforms spelled out in the Lisbon Treaty." In his valedictory address to the European Parliament, President Sarkozy said "the world needs a strong Europe and that Europe cannot be strong if it is not united." He advocated a continent with "big ambitions…because only big projects have the power to overcome national egos." His emphasis on continental ego instead was reflected in his curious observation that the European nations collectively received more medals at the August Olympics than did either China or the United States: "The European Union therefore takes the leading position. It's a victory for sport and for the fundamental and common values of the people of the union."

Yet this claim illustrates the extraordinary weakness of the Lisbon project. President Sarkozy was one of the few people in Europe to exult in the continent's collective medal total. Most other Europeans cared only about how their individual nations did. As with soccer, the teams, loyalty and cheers are national. While a certain new class of peripatetic, transnational Europeans has developed, most Europeans retain their national identity. Which is why even the Lisbon Treaty reaffirms "the specific character of the security and defense policy of certain member states."

Europe's sense of identity could change, but not because of the treaty. The agreement has faltered precisely because average people want to preserve important attributes of their own societies. Irish voters, for instance, were reluctant to risk their traditional neutrality to a European foreign policy. Even if the Eurocratic elite is able to finesse the Irish vote, it will not create a real country of "Europe." Put bluntly, if the only way you can create a new government is by preventing most everyone from voting on it, you will have only created a hollow political shell.