IN SEVEN days we will be given an opportunity denied to the vast majority of the European Union’s 500 million citizens.
We will be asked to vote on the Lisbon treaty.
We should make the very most of that chance and use the remaining days to inform ourselves of the issues and reach a position that reflects our principles and aspirations, a position that will optimise the benefits Ireland can expect to enjoy because of European Union membership.
We will be privileged to exercise our franchise to accept or reject the Lisbon treaty.
The 3,051,278 people registered as eligible to vote represent little more than half of 1% of the population of the EU, but we are assured that, if we were to say no, the whole European project will be in jeopardy.
How real can that admonishment be?
Or is it, as seems more likely, our politicians and some business leaders are taking our trust and compliance just a tad too much for granted?
To suggest that European stagnation will follow a no vote sounds at the very least implausible scaremongering. Especially as we are being allowed to vote only because of a peculiarity of our constitution, otherwise we would not, just like our co-citizens in the other 25 states, have been troubled by a confusing, obtuse, belated and too-easily-ignored, campaign. A colourless campaign that has not served the principle of participatory European democracy well, though Irish politicians cannot be blamed for that.
The frustration felt by a large section of the European electorate was evidenced yesterday when a Dutch member of parliament, Harri van Bommel, failed to have the treaty put before the Dutch electorate, despite having written support from 42,000 citizens. This can only sustain the charges of a democratic deficit in the union.
We may be suspicious, as the campaign has not sought a mandate from all of those who will be affected by the outcome.
If we have the temerity to say no, the trains will still run between Toulouse and Bordeaux, the grape growers of Navarra will look forward to, hopefully, a fine rioja. The tide will, as it has done since Jean Monnet was a boy, ebb and flow through Killary Harbour, throwing the Atlantic’s flotsam up on the shore at Leenane.
Just like France and the Netherlands, who voted non and nee three years ago, we cannot be expelled like a deviant schoolchild and the treaty cannot advance without us.
Our government will be embarrassed, especially our Taoiseach. We may stupidly isolate ourselves and do the wrong thing, but the great European project, the one that has brought peace and prosperity to a Continent twice ravaged by apocalyptic war in the last century, will endure and hopefully prosper.
The EU is one of the great, essential, modern bulwarks of liberalism and, ironically, democracy. It, and its allies, stand before the ever more powerful and voracious autocracies of Russia and China. It will continue to do so even if we, all 1,000,000 or so of us needed to reach a majority — much fewer in reality, voter turnout may be low — on the issue, decide to reject Lisbon.
In Ireland the debate has been formed along the usual fault lines. It has been a case of endure the usual suspects rather than arrest them. It has been animated by hysteria and petty nationalism, by finger-wagging, patronising and hypocritical campaigning. Voting blocks have been used as bargaining chips by lobbies putting their special needs before the needs of all of the country and all of the EU.
Indeed, a Government deputy has already admitted that, if we don’t vote as required by the Government, we will be asked to vote again, presumably jumping through the hoops until we get it “right”, just as we did for Nice.
In far too many instances the debate has continued as if the EU had made little enough or no contribution to the modernisation and enrichment of Ireland.
Nevertheless, Lisbon is all about structural reform. It’s about changing the process of how the community interacts and until that reform is completed we cannot begin to make the politics work to try to make Europe a force for greater good in the world.
And we so need to make politics work, to take on the great challenges facing us all: huge battles over workers’ rights; our contribution to the developing world; climate change; managing the market economy so it serves all the people; immigration and integration; energy independence and every other issue causing concern for Europeans whether they were asked to vote or not.
Until structural reform is completed, and it will be sooner or later, we will not be able to make European aspirations a reality because the process rather than the objective will dominate the agenda.
We have a week to inform ourselves and decide how we will vote.
We have a week to decide whether we want to retain our influence at the centre of Europe and play an active part in the evolution of a great project that will continue with or without us.
We should use it, 495 million Europeans would love the opportunity.
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