Lisbon Essay (7): Slowness, endless negotiations and bureaucracy are the EU’s strength…

It seems sometimes that the integrity of Ireland’s ancient struggle with its neighbour has left it in a semi detached mode in its relations with (and historical memory of) the wider interests (and the conflicts therein) of the rest of Europe. Rónán O’Brien writes of his conviction that the European Union has done much to mediate the effects of raw nationalism and brought peace to much of a continent that was previously continuously shaped by ethnic and nationalist warring… He concludes that it’s very weakness is its actual strength: ‘Its slowness, its endless negotiations and its bureaucracy knits consensus among differing interests and perspectives…

By Rónán O’Brien

A couple of years ago, my wife Eileen and I decided to holiday in Northern France specifically to take in the battlefields of the First World War in both France and Belgium.

I have always had an interest in the tragedy of that conflict and particularly how it impacted on the ordinary workingmen who fought in it – their initial enthusiasm giving way to the horrors of industrial warfare.

Perhaps my interest had been awakened by reading Sebastian Faulks’ sublime war novel ‘Birdsong’ and the revisionism of Niall Ferguson’s the Pity of War – a book that I could not put down.

But that interest is more European than Irish. I did not approach the conflict seeking, as some have done, to rehabilitate the memory of the thousands of Irish people who died in the conflict; though that is important.

That part came later for me as I stood in the Peace Park in Messines or beside the grave of William Redmond, John Redmond’s brother, a suffragist: a radical in many ways that are far from the stereotypical ‘Redmondite’ of our history.

But I was as interested in the British dead, the French and the Germans, the South Africans, the Australians and the Americans as I was in those of Ireland. This was essentially a European war that we dragged everybody else into.

I was struck by the huge number of cemeteries that dot the landscape; the sheer size of Thiepval, the memorial to the lost French and British dead of the Somme; and by the poppies posted by visiting British visitors on the graves of dead German soldiers in German cemeteries.

Partisanship has given way to shared horror at what these soldiers endured.

And the final tragedy – of a war that didn’t end all wars but caused a further one – I found German Christians and German Jews buried side by side in a foreign land.

Of course the truth is that war, not the absence of war, has been the essence of the European experience. It may be difficult to see it from our current day peaceful perspective but it is our own generation that is living in aberrant times. We are not a special generation either.

In terms of national identities ours remains a crowded continent and raw, unmediated nationalism – as Srebrenica proved – can still be a powerful tool of hate.

At the heart of this peaceful coexistence has been the European Union for all its faults and inconsistencies. The truth is that sometimes what we believe is wrong about the EU is its strength.

Its slowness, its endless negotiations and its bureaucracy no more than our own peace process, is its strength as it knits consensus among differing interests and perspectives.

The Lisbon Treaty tinkers with this process, seeks to achieve a fairer balance between representation of states and peoples, goes further than some would want and less than that wanted by others but, if passed will constitute agreement between 27 individual states acing in concert.

The question is not so much why should you vote for it but, in the great historical sweep of things, how can you vote against it?

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  • DR

    Mick,
    some would say the two WW were fought for to secure the survival of the small nation states, in particular where they formed a buffer between the various empires, essentially the idea was to prevent one empire gaing too much control over Europe, be it Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, Russia or even Britain, this was also the indirect reasoning behind most European wars of the the last mellenium. The EEC/EU has been extremely succeful in that respect, but The European Constitution (rejected by most who got a chance to vote on it) in its flimsy disguise of the Lisbon Treaty lays the foundations for a European Empire once again, it goes far far beyond “tinkering with the process” but gives the centre power to overrule many of those smaller nations. The people of Ireland are brave to have kicked it out once, i hope they do so again.

  • Neville Bagnall

    Article 16.4

    A blocking minority must include at least four Council members.

    If we can convince 3 other small nations to vote with us, we have a veto on all EU legislation.

  • Neville Bagnall

    Sorry, should be more specific.

    All new EU legislation.

  • Neville Bagnall

    I cannot see how a European Empire can be ruled from the centre when 4 nations on the periphery can grind progress it to a halt.

  • Neville Bagnall,

    That is not the only condition for a blocking minority. Voting strengthys come into it too. Merely having four countries voting against a proposal is not enough for a veto, but three big countries on their own, regardless of their votes, cannot veto things – they’d need a fourth to join them. Sorry to disappoint, but the idea that Ireland, along with Malta, Estonia and Cyprus, could block things is a complete misunderstanding of how things work.

  • Neville Bagnall

    Yes, sorry, I was completely off the wall with that, posted without thinking it through.

  • DC

    In many ways Horseman it’s like the Lisbon Treaty, try as you might alone the greater number rests with those states that want it.

    We Northerners are in a dilemma, we are stuck by acceptance inside a UK run by a cohort of British conservative southerners, anti-EU in outlook; or, we are encouraged to join Ireland and be run by another bunch of southerners largely conservative in outlook.

    Except with Ireland,the Euro and the European project is that glimmer of slightly something different more subtle in tastes.

    But Ireland seems to want to go the way of the British, hardly surprising though given media persuasion is to be hostile to EU influence unsurprisingly the media ownership is largely in the same hands across both isles.

  • Dave

    Ronan O’Brien will have to do better at rehashing an ancient pro-EU myth (that the EU has solved the problem of war in Europe) than add a sentimental anecdote with an asinine rhetorical twist as his punch line.

    In fact, dividing Germany in two at the end of WW2 substantially solved the problem of war in Europe. The arrival of mass media which helped to portray the bloody carnage of that war also helped – not to mention that the empires of Europe (France, Germany and the UK) were financially bankrupt after it and it no position for a rematch. In addition, NATO, the United Nations, the United States, et al, promoted the spread of democracies and the demise of ideologies such as fascism and communism. The demise of imperialism and the rise of nation-states also played a pivotal role in global stabilisation and that protection under the UN’s international law that was offered to nation-states helped persuade those nations in Europe that their sovereignty was not under threat from actors in Europe. So, just as WW1 and WW2 was caused by imperialism (and not nationalism), the dissipation of European imperialism after the war brought an end to Europe’s wars. Why then should we allow a new empire to be created in the form of the EU that directly threatens the sovereignty of Europe’s nation-states?

    Incidentally, it is remarkably stupid to approve the creation of a superstate and the disposal the present arrangement when you are arguing (without a shred of empirical evidence) that said present arrangement has been highly successful in stopping the Europeans from bombing each other.

    His ‘argument’ is essentially that nation-states (which have created stability) should be dismantled and replaced with another imperial entity (which have caused Europe’s wars) because if they’re not then the Europeans will revert to type and begin slaughtering each other. Such faith in European civilisation, eh?

    European states may indeed declare wars on each other if they do not dismantle their nation-states and dispose of their nation’s sovereign right to determine their own affairs, but the difference will be that other states may stay out of Europe’s wars pre-integration whereas post-integration, they will be involved in her wars whether they approve of them or not. Indeed, if Lisbon was in place prior to the adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, Europe would be involved in those wars and all of Europe’s citizens (for you become European citizens first and foremost under this treaty) would be directly implicated in those war crimes. It becomes your state, and you become its citizens – and its wars will become your wars. Now you have the luxury of protesting from a position of national innocence but later you will not.

  • Dave

    I suppose that a shorter answer to this ridiculous piece of propaganda (or heartfelt naivety) is that I do not agree to renounce my right to self-determination as a member of the Irish nation or to betray my state by agreeing to be loyal to another state just so that a bunch of fucking Krauts don’t feel a sudden urge to invade the bloody Frogs again.

    By the way, that statement is a hate crime under EU law (incitement to hatred based on national identity); and you may have me arrested for it. Freedom of speech is another right that I do not intend to forsake just to comply with the illegitimate laws that are imposed by an unelected regime. 😉

  • Dublin Exile

    I thought it was an excellent piece. I dont think there is an imperial project at foot here at all, and its true that the EU and the EEC have provided a way for states to work through their relationships without resorting to war. As far as I can see all this treaty does is make the thing work more efficiently and by voting against it all we’ll be doing is throwing in our lot with the Little Englanders next door – an irony given that those who present themselves as wanting to break the connection with the UK are in effect lining up on the same side as UKIP and the BNP.

  • Dave,

    … that statement is a hate crime under EU law

    Are you sure? Could you point us towards the ‘EU law’ that says so?

    Or are laws relating to incitement to hatred, etc, not actually enacted a national level?

  • The Crime and Disorder Act 1998. How is this EU law?

  • jethro

    It’s a human trait to try and see cause and effect everywhere.

    The EU stops wars … or … bankrupt imperialists stops wars – it’s impossible to know exactly. Even with the benefit of hindsight.

    Foresight – knowing exactly what the impact of the treaty will be – there’s only one truth here – beware the person who claims to know for sure how it will pan out – either way.

    This is a values decision which is not entirely rational – you like to be in, you like to be out.

    Neither scenario looks likely to produce the extreme … probably. So accept its a general principles issue and study it as best you can – think of how you live your life as your model and then cast you vote.

    There’s no such thing as irishness and the irishperson – there’s over 4 million irishpersons. Cast the votes and let’s see what irishness is now!!!

  • “The question is not so much why should you vote for it but, in the great historical sweep of things, how can you vote against it?”

    Think of the major incidents that have happened on Irish railways, like Buttevant, or Cherryville Junction, or the Broadmeadow viaduct. They alerted us to the fact that, in different ways, the institution in charge was notionally doing its job but in actuality was not.

    In the same way, the Lisbon Treaty ratification process and also the Nice process highlighted that the EU is getting ahead of its citizenry – while the vested interests/future members of EU jollies like Court of Auditors or EU ambassadorships vote for it in the Parliaments the citizens vote against at an alarming frequency and only for it after unreal amounts of political pressure and threats of doom.

    The tinkering as described above would not have been necessary were the EU to have been more measured about who was permitted to accede and who was required to join the EEA as an interim step.

    To imply – and he does – that to reject Lisbon is to invite tanks to cross the Rhine or any other EU frontier is utter pish.

  • Neville Bagnall

    The arrival of mass media which helped to portray the bloody carnage of that war also helped

    It didn’t help after WW1. The memory of carnage is seldom sufficient to prevent future carnage.

    protection under the UN’s international law that was offered to nation-states helped persuade those nations in Europe that their sovereignty was not under threat from actors in Europe

    UK, France and Russia all have a veto. The UN protected nothing. Action is still in the gift of the Great Powers. NATO and the cold war had a much bigger effect.

    The dissipation of European imperialism after the war brought an end to Europe’s wars.

    Russian imperialism did not end. Arguably West European imperialism was replaced with American imperialism, granted of the Roman Republic rather than Roman Empire variety.

    Why then should we allow a new empire to be created in the form of the EU that directly threatens the sovereignty of Europe’s nation-states?

    To suggest the EU is becoming an empire is, I believe, hyperbole.

    they will be involved in her wars whether they approve of them or not

    Neutral countries were involved in WW1 despite not wishing to be. Ireland would almost certainly have been involved in WW2 if the UK had been invaded. At least we have a veto on the common foreign and security policy.

    Indeed, if Lisbon was in place prior to the adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, Europe would be involved in those wars

    The European nations are involved in Afghanistan, courtesy of the UN. Some European nations are involved in Iraq, that fact would not have been changed by Lisbon one way or another as military decisions require unanimity. Further had any common foreign policy position been attempted it would almost certainly have required unanimity (if necessary forced by the invocation of):

    If a member of the Council declares that, for vital and stated reasons of national policy, it intends to oppose the adoption of a decision to be taken by qualified majority, a vote shall not be taken.

    I simply do not believe that a Union containing the UK, France, Germany and Sweden is going to devolve into a consensual imperialisitic power. If anything I believe the CFSP will serve to reign-in the more hawkish nations.

  • Neville Bagnall

    In the same way, the Lisbon Treaty ratification process and also the Nice process highlighted that the EU is getting ahead of its citizenry

    Well, you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) lead from behind. If the Governments of Europe (who after all have the most direct experience of what is working and what is not) don’t lead, who will?
    Statesmen are those who say an unpopular truth and carry the argument. I’ll grant you that the European project suffers from a lot of stating and not enough arguing.

    The tinkering as described above would not have been necessary were the EU to have been more measured about who was permitted to accede and who was required to join the EEA as an interim step.

    Well, I’ve argued elsewhere for another approach to enlargement. However, there was undoubtedly a tide in the affairs of man after the fall of communism and we need only look further east to see the shallows and miseries we may have avoided by welcoming the newly freed nations into full membership so quickly.