Special Report

The Irish Exception

What in the world is the U.S. doing backing anti-democratic forces in Europe?

By 7.8.08

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The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to be a done deal in Europe. After the embarrassing rejection of the European Union constitution by Dutch and French voters three years ago, EU officials repackaged the document as a "treaty" and proclaimed that no referenda would be necessary. "There will be no treaty at all if we had a referendum in France," explained French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The one speed bump was Ireland, since the Irish constitution required a popular vote. But Irish politicians, heads of most of the other 26 governments that make up the EU, and every Eurocrat living well in Brussels launched a concentrated propaganda campaign. Never mind the fine print. All of the right-thinking people in Europe believed this to be for the benefit of the Irish people, so just sign on, thank you very much. Alas, the Irish people voted no.

That should be the end of it. The constitution, er, treaty requires unanimity. Ireland said no, so the deal is off.

However, voters increasingly are irrelevant in Europe. They get to choose their governments in a quaint and old-fashioned way, but those governments of whatever ideological stripe increasingly have ceded authority to Brussels.

The Lisbon Treaty represents the apotheosis of rule by international bureaucracy: the European elite have decided that consolidation is the wave of the future, and they certainly don't intend to allow the ungrateful Irish to stand in the way. Observed German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble: "a few million Irish cannot decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans."

No, a few million Irish certainly shouldn't decide the fate of 495 million Europeans. That's the job for a few thousand politicians, bureaucrats, and other members of the New Class across the continent, intent on creating a new Europe irrespective of the people's desires. Polls indicate that three-quarters of Europeans-and majorities in all 27 countries-would like to vote on the expansion of EU powers. And if such referenda were held, a majority of people would vote no in 16 of them, including in Germany. No wonder the Eurocrats won't allow anyone else to vote on their futures.

It's tempting as an American to bid the Europeans well as they embark on their grand experiment at continent-wide aggrandizement. Frustrated with America's continuing global dominance, European elites want their own super-state, with a president and a foreign minister, as well as a governing structure that can crush disagreement -- or, to put it more politely, override dissenting minorities. To some degree the Europeans want to telescope two centuries of American constitutional development, which also led to national consolidation, into a decade or less.

Yet the big difference between North America and Europe is that all of the original 13 American colonies, as well as the new states that followed, began from more or less the same political, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic stock.

To be sure, immigration enlivened the American body politic, but the Great Melting Pot, at least until recently, created a common tradition and experience.

Europe is attempting to turn 27 very different nations into de facto states. Consolidation was a painful experience in the U.S., and required a bitter civil war to finally subordinate state sovereignty to the national government.

In Europe peoples ranging from Spain to Romania are being asked to toss aside their national identities for a new creation centered in Brussels. National identity would not disappear, of course, but eliminating the requirement for unanimity would destroy the most important protection for national sovereignty. And the Eurocrats have only begun. The Lisbon Treaty is a starting, not ending, point.

ANYONE WHO BELIEVES in individual liberty and limited government should care about the European experiment, since neither principle is likely to escape unscathed. Still, as a matter of official international relations it really is the business of the Europeans. The Bush administration has affirmed its support for the Lisbon Treaty, but doubtless no one in a policy-making position has read the monstrosity. (Of course, few European policy-makers likely have read it either.) Anyway, Washington's opposition wouldn't change anyone's opinion in Europe and would just aggravate relations already rubbed raw over Iraq and other controversies. But why are U.S. officials encouraging the process?

European consolidation offers at best a mixed bag for the United States. On the positive side, in a world in which increasingly authoritarian Russia is reasserting itself and undemocratic China is growing in influence, a more influential capitalist and democratic Europe should provide a positive influence.

Frankly, if Moscow is a problem, it is a problem for Europe, not America. If Georgia's control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia matters to anyone, it is to Europe, not to the U.S. If someone desires to midwife the independence of Kosovo, it should be Europe, not America. If North Africa can be drawn away from the influence of the Middle East, it will be by Europe, not America.

The European Union has a larger collective economy and population than does the U.S., so let the EU start carrying its geopolitical weight.

Whether the continent is willing to do so is quite another question, however. French President Sarkozy has proposed strengthening French and European military power, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has added his endorsement. But earlier European defense initiatives have essentially gone nowhere.

In Europe only Britain and France are really serious about their militaries. The conscript German military is primarily a source of social workers -- who receive an easy deferment from military service -- rather than a combat force. Berlin has sent soldiers to Afghanistan, but with the proviso that they not be stationed where they might be shot at. Most European states only play soldier, hoping to do enough to maintain Washington's security guarantee through NATO. Countries like Estonia and Albania conspicuously preen after sending two or three score soldiers to Iraq.

Moreover, a united Europe could end up being a counterweight against America as well. Although U.S. and European interests normally mesh, if not fully coincide, geopolitical differences are real and might increase. A consolidated Europe is likely to be more susceptible to the machinations of unaccountable interests, lobbies, and bureaucracies. Moreover, a continental foreign policy will make it more difficult for Washington to work with individual European states, "new" or "old," with which it has warmer relations.

As for economics, the EU has broken down internal trade barriers but now is beginning to create a monster regulatory state. U.S. firms, such as Microsoft, have ended up in Europe's legal crosshairs. Last month the EU approved new rules, long opposed by Washington and U.S. firms, to essentially force chemical companies to prove their products are safe. Proving a negative is extraordinarily difficult and the cost of implementation over the coming decade is likely to be in the billions of dollars; some firms might have to abandon the European market. The EU's regulatory reach might soon extend to American businessmen and tourists traveling to Europe, under a new set of security regulations being considered in Brussels.

To some degree Washington has only itself to blame. For years the U.S. government has claimed the right to regulate everyone everywhere -- expanding Cuban sanctions to the European subsidiaries of American firms, for instance.

Reciprocal extraterritorial regulation has now arrived for Americans. Still, whatever Washington thinks of the prospect of a consolidated Europe, there isn't much it can do about it. And Ireland would seem to have saved America the trouble of worrying about the issue.

EXCEPT THAT THE EUROCRATS aren't finished. They believe in a variation of the Brezhnev doctrine: a yes is forever, but a no is only temporary. The basic tactic was suggested by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir: "The idea is to completely isolate Ireland." For this reason the eight countries that have not yet ratified the Lisbon Treaty have been urged to carry on. Obviously, 26 to 1 allows a tougher squeeze than 18 to 9.

This tactic might not work -- both the German and Polish presidents are currently withholding their signatures from the treaty for different reasons -- but even if the other 26 say yes, then what? The simplest proposal is for a revote -- a tactic used in 2002 after Ireland first rejected the Nice Treaty, which further centralized power in Brussels while making a number of technocratic changes to the EU's governing structure. But even tossing in a few opt-outs and other goodies might not win over the Irish people this time.

Of course, European consolidators dismiss the Lisbon Treaty's critics as a bunch of know-nothings, and complain that the Irish didn't read the document. Undoubtedly so, but few of those who voted yes likely did so either. Even Irish Prime Minster Brian Cowen, a treaty backer, admitted that he had not read it.

And many Irish who opposed the accord cited serious concerns over preserving economic freedom, maintaining government accountability and transparency, and preserving Ireland's national identity and international neutrality.

Understandably, Prime Minister Cowen worries that failure in a second referendum would mean the fall of his government, and so far has rejected the idea of forcing another vote.

Other proposals include creating a two-tier structure for Europe. But Britain and other countries oppose that idea, which seems unworkable: How can the EU have a united foreign and defense policy, except for one member? How can unanimity be abandoned, except for the Irish? Such a system would be complex even for the byzantine governing structure of the EU.

A few Eurocrats advocate tossing the Irish out of the EU. But what other nation wants to establish that precedent? Even more fundamental is the question of Europe's commitment to the rule of law. Democratic republics work only if the losers respect the results and do not attempt to manipulate the system for their own purposes. A continental government in which a few thousand elites are able to ruthlessly override the wishes of a majority of a half billion people raises questions about the moral and philosophical character of the EU. It wouldn't be Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, obviously, but it also would not be a genuinely liberal democratic order either.

Ultimately, it's up to the Europeans to decide on their governing institutions. And we all only see through a glass darkly into the future. But Ireland's no vote has given the rest of the continent an opportunity to stop and reflect. The people of Europe should ponder well the pitfalls of EU consolidation, a one-way path away from Europe's great liberal heritage.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).