Adrian Hamilton: If only the Irish would kill the Lisbon Treaty

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The Independent Online

It may seem perverse for a pro-European to say so, but it is precisely because I am so committed a supporter of the EU that I dearly hope that the Irish reject the Lisbon Treaty in their referendum in a fortnight's time.

Whether they will or not is a separate question. They didn't say no when perhaps they should have, on the Masstricht Treaty. They did vote initially against when there was no real cause to, over the Nice Treaty in 2001. This time it could be a tight-run contest. The yes vote still has the edge and everyone had expected the margin to grow as the leaders of the major parties – all of them pro the treaty – swung into action after the appointment of a new Irish Prime Minister. Instead the latest polls show a narrowing of the lead, at 41 per cent saying they'll vote yes and 33 per cent against,.

Self-interest of a country that has benefited almost more than any other from EU membership may well prevail, of course. So may the urgings of the party leadership and the fear of being left isolated if Ireland voted no in a Union whose every other member has said yeah.

But precious few of those countries went to their public for approval. The really interesting question about the Irish act of democracy for the EU as a whole is just why there is such a strong mood of rejection in a country which has benefited so much from membership.

Of course you can put it down to the grumbling of vested interests. Irish farmers bitterly oppose the reduction in subsidies that the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the offers in world trade negotiations entail, although this is not strictly a consequence of the Treaty of Lisbon as such. The neutralists distrust the proposals for European defence, the anti-abortionists fear the secularisation of an evolving EU while small businessmen worry about tax harmonisation that could wipe out Ireland's advantages in low business taxes (although again the Lisbon Treaty would provide the country with the power of veto on tax issues).

Add to that Sinn Fein's fear of federalism at a time when it wishes to stoke up nationalism and you have enough of a rag-bag collection of gainsayers to prevent an easy passage of the referendum.

But none of this really gets to the heart of the difficulty for the treaty's proponents. The problem put simply is that the Treaty of Lisbon inspires nobody, not even its fiercest advocates let alone those disabused or bored with the whole subject.

It's not that it is a bad treaty. Or – pace the europhobes of Britain – a particularly threatening one. It's in fact a typically opaque and irresolute product of European summitry, a suet pudding of boiled bits. There's something of administrative reforms, a little of rationalisation of rules, a gesture towards common policies and a smattering of aspiration. But it's all really fat around the vital organs, made sweet for general consumption.

If the Irish were to reject it, what difference would it make? The answer is essentially a negative one. The EU, having trudged its way to this point of nearly unanimous approval of a treaty that is itself a washed-out version of the original Constitution, would, it is said, lose impetus and effectiveness. Its influence in the world would be diminished and the public would become even more turned off.

But then that is exactly what is happening anyhow. The Lisbon Treaty is not going to make up for the fact that there is no real political leadership of Europe at the moment, nor any obvious economic impetus. If the EU politicians had really believed in the Lisbon Treaty and saw it as the route to the future then the leaders of the countries that had rejected the Constitution – France, the Netherlands and the British who had been promised a referendum – should have put it before their electorate. Instead they flunked that decision and cannot claim democratic authority as a result.

The great benefit of an Irish rejection at this last moment is that it would force the whole of Europe's leadership, and particularly that of the core countries, to face up to the fact that the enterprise lacks legitimacy which no amount of tinkering with treaties will make up. Rejecting Lisbon would not be the practical disaster its supporters suggest. Most of the administrative reforms such as cutting back the number of commissioners could be done with reference to national parliaments. If the Council really wants a president and a foreign secretary, then let its members propose these too as individual initiatives to their domestic legislators.

And then perhaps the premiers of Europe can get together to draw up a proper manifesto for the future, with a clear statement of their objectives and how they propose to implement them, and then go back and sell it to their voters.

In the end I doubt that the good citizens of the Irish republic will reject the treaty. Inertia if nothing else will probably win the day. But for the sake of Europe, I wish they would. It's the only shock that would bring any democratic life to this tired, aimless beast.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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