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?