Even the most committed supporters of the European project would agree that a great many ills bedevil the European Union. No one doubts, for instance, that the recent revelations of irregularities in MEPs' expenses are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to venal behaviour in the European Parliament. And what we know for certain about some of the EU's activities is bad enough. The Common Agricultural Policy channels billions of euros in subsidies to some of the wealthiest landowners in Europe. The commission's accounts are a bad joke.
The result is that Brussels often resembles a self-interested conspiracy of arrogant elites. The fact that the Lisbon Treaty, the platform on which the EU is hoping to build its institutional future, began its life as an overblown vanity project for the former French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, does nothing to help dispel this impression.
But it would be difficult to point confidently to which of the above faults the Irish people's rejection of the treaty yesterday was a response. All of them? Possibly. But perhaps none. Irish commentators point to the wildly contradictory agendas of those who led the anti-Lisbon campaign. Some wanted to protect agricultural subsidies. Others feared tax harmonisation. If even Dublin does not know how to interpret the results of this referendum, what hope does Brussels have? That is the fundamental problem with referendums on detailed treaties: they produce a concise answer, but it is difficult to work out what it actually means.
We need to take a step back and look at the broader picture. Anyone who is serious about Europe playing a more serious global role in the 21st century will recognise that it needs to be more effective at making decisions and to speak with a clearer voice on the world stage. For that it needs the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, in particular a permanent president of the council, a single representative for foreign affairs, the streamlining of the commission and a qualified majority voting system.
Fourteen other nation states have already ratified the treaty. There is no good reason why an Irish rejection should override their approval. It is far from an ideal response, but the commission has no practical alternative to tweaking the treaty (although not too heavily to provoke those nations that have already ratified) and sending it back to Dublin a second time. This is what happened with the Nice Treaty in 2001. Regrettably, it needs to happen again.
But that is not to argue that Brussels can dismiss this result as merely a howl of misplaced rage from Ireland. Europe clearly needs to do a better job of connecting with its 490 million citizens. For it is not merely in Ireland where there are worrying signs of disaffection. The project is still shaken by the French and Dutch rejections of the Constitution three years ago. It is this perceived "democratic deficit" that is handing unelected populists such as Declan Ganley, Ireland's "Mr No", such leverage in the debate.
The question is how to bridge the gap. Brussels needs to clean up its act financially. It must recognise that its own survival now depends on its ability to clamp down on corruption. And, just as important, national politicians from member states, old and new, must do a much better job of explaining to their electorates how the European Union acts to further their interests. This means they must stop allowing "Europe" to become a convenient scapegoat for public anger over the harsh winds of globalisation. It also requires them to point out the prosperity that the EU has delivered to our continent in its half century of existence. Friday 13th was a bad day for the EU. The fight back from its supporters must begin without delay.Reuse content