In Oct 1971, a man wrote to then foreign affairs minister Patrick Hillery complaining that when his mother had attempted to pick up the Government Information Bureau’s pamphlet on the EEC from Bray post office, the official behind the counter expressed ignorance of any pamphlet, asking: “What’s the EEC? Is it a new allowance?”
Few policy decisions have had such a profound impact on life in Ireland as our entry to the EEC in 1973 and, for many, Irish membership of the EU has indeed proved to be an allowance, bringing with it significant monetary and social benefits. Recent experience of the European project has, however, soured, with the EU now part of the bogeyman of the troika stalking the land and implementing austerity.
Ireland’s relationship with the EU has lurched from stability to crisis. The rejection of the Lisbon treaty in Jun 2008, the second such defeat of a European referendum in seven years, reopened the debate as to Ireland’s role within the EU.
The latest chapter now revolves around the fiscal stability treaty. As European treaties go, this is a hard sell to an Irish electorate that has grown increasingly sceptical of such treaties, tending to view them as threats to Irish interests.
It is noticeable that the major opponents of the Lisbon treaty — Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance, and Libertas — campaigned specifically on the view that it was bad for Irish interests, both labour and business. They are doing the same again now, and voicing the same creed that they are pro-European though coming from differing ideological positions.
Recent statements from Paris and Berlin that the treaty could well be renegotiated pose a severe difficulty for the yes side as the belief grows that the treaty can be amended. There is also a growing cynicism running through the electorate as European referenda run the danger of becoming meaningless if the electorate keeps being asked to vote until they say yes.
The fiscal stability treaty is now the ninth referendum relating to Ireland’s position within the EU and the stakes could not be higher for the Government and its place within the European project. The Nice treaty seemed to be a wake-up call to Irish politicians that European campaigns would have to do more than tell people to vote yes but would have to convince them of the benefits.
The Forum on Europe was established in part to help communicate the EU to the electorate and bridge the gulf between the political elite and the people. It clearly failed in this regard and the fundamental disconnect between political elites and the general populace regarding Europe is widening.
Europe today is mostly seen by its citizens as a project espoused by a political elite which was at keel when the European economy hit the rocks. In Ireland, the EU and its governance is, according to the then government’s inquest into the result of the first Lisbon fiasco, incomprehensible to the general public.
Of course, if that Fianna Fáil-led government was interested in knowing how the people felt about Lisbon, they should have checked before the referendum. Had they done so, they might have gauged the dearth of awareness and the levels of misunderstanding on key issues and addressed them accordingly.
But the fiscal stability treaty debate, from a Government perspective, should be much more than just about access to funds. It should treat EU membership as something more than simply an allowance. In that context, it would be a welcome change to see our politicians campaigning on Europe on the basis of a value system rather than of a wish list, and offering positive visions of the future instead of dire and somewhat incoherent warnings about the fate that awaits us if we do not act on their recommendations.
During the 1972 EEC referendum campaign, a member of Fine Gael’s Dublin South East executive told the party “it is time our leaders woke up to the fact that there are many thousands of Fine Gael supporters who haven’t made up their minds at all on the question of the Common Market because they don’t know enough about it. We should not be treated as children — just told to close our eyes, open our mouths and swallow this nasty medicine because it will do us good.”
The danger for this Fine Gael-led Government is that a people sick of austerity are being told the same thing some 40 years later. Swallow the austerity medicine because it will do us good in the long run does not sound too appetising to a populace seeing very little way out of the economic morass the country is in. The “Lisbon for jobs” slogan of the second referendum now sounds somewhat hollow to a country with mass unemployment and emigration.
While the opinion polls look good for the yes campaign, it is a pity that the governing parties and various civil groups campaigning for a yes vote do not put forward a more fundamental vision of what membership of the EU is about, and not rely on the apocalyptic warnings of a no vote.
There is time to do it and for it to make a difference on polling day. For where there is no vision — as Solomon said — the people perish.
* Gary Murphy is Associate Professor of Politics at Dublin City University, and has just returned to Ireland from a six-month period as visiting Fulbright Professor of Politics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.