While EU leaders meet today to discuss how to best pretend that they are going to present a different Treaty to the Irish a second time around, Open Europe held an event at The Centre in Brussels, in collaboration with the Bertelsmann Foundation.
We will write more tomorrow about exactly what is being cooked up by EU leaders, and what it all means, but in the meantime, here is a summary of what went on at the event.
Newly elected MEP Joe Higgins, for the Irish Socialist Party, kicked off by pointing out that the debate about what Ireland will do next is not about whether the people want to leave the EU, but rather about what direction the EU was heading. He said, “There are many red-herrings on both sides of the debate”, and described the process going on behind closed doors today at the European Council as “an elaborate charade” to make people think they will be voting on a different text a second time around. He noted that, according to the draft conclusions of the Council, the Treaty itself will not be changed prior to the second referendum, saying the agreement "doesn't advance the issue one iota." He noted, “It is exactly the same text, word by word, not even a comma has been changed”, and noting that none of the Irish people's real concerns are addressed.
When questioned by a Commission official in the audience about why we should bother referendums, when "nobody votes on the question asked", Mr. Higgins said it was "highly arrogant" for someone from the Commission, or indeed anyone else, to stand up and claim that the Irish people had no idea what they were voting for. He said that the results of the vote were barely through before people started calling for a re-vote, and noted: "The right of Irish people to disagree was being questioned." He noted that ahead of the second referendum, the establishment would "terrorise the Irish because of the Irish crash" in the economy. He said this would be "the biggest red-herring of all" in the debate, and challenged proponents of the Treaty to clarify what exactly in the Treaty would help to stop people in Ireland losing their jobs.
Elmar Brok, veteran German MEP for the CDU Christian Democratic Party, kciked off by issuing a series of morbid veiled threats :
1) the Irish people were responsible for the fate of 500 million EU citizens (no pressure, then)
2) “You get this, or you get nothing", there is “no chance of negotiating a new Treaty”
3) If Ireland votes no, the Union would see a “break up into first and second class Member States”, which would distort proper functioning of the EU.
He said: “United we can be stronger, together we can maintain peace and prosperity” and said the guarantees Ireland have been promised would be carried out in a similar way to those awarded to Denmark at the Maastricht ratification process in 1992. “These types of declarations have worked before, and there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t work again. They are legally binding declarations and have been a big success”.
Jens-Peter Bonde reacted from the audience, stating that “EU Member States cannot enter into international agreements”. He said: “These declarations are politically binding, but they have no legal value. All of the Danish ‘guarantees’ have been breached, every single one of them, so they are not legally binding guarantees”. Brok's pretty feeble response was: "This decision will become a protocol and then it will become legally-binding."
Paddy Smyth, Brussels correspondent for the Irish Times said, “it is not undemocratic to ask the people to vote again. I would agree with Joe; nothing has changed in relation to the declarations. It is a question of clarifications entirely, apart from the guarantee of an Irish commissioner”.
For an unswerving advocate of the Treaty, this is quite candid stuff. He said: “Nothing in the declarations materially affects the treaty text. If there was a material difference, then the Treaty would have to be re-ratified in all the other member states” and said that “the difference to the Danish case is that Denmark got an opt-out, which was a material change in effect”.
Smyth pointed out the differences between the yes and no campaigns for the Lisbon Treaty, stating that “the yes-campaign was a defensive campaign addressing those issues raised by the opposition to the treaty, such as abortion or workers’ rights. Many of the proponents of the Treaty had not read it and didn’t understand it to properly defend it”. The no campaign, he claims, will “gain much steadier ground through the debate around the guarantees”.
The Daily Telegraph Brussels correspondent Bruno Waterfield said that in one sense, it was “great to have a second chance for a debate, especially when other countries haven’t had the chance for even one”. He argued that the “EU is a club of leaders and administrators that are running away from debate, and rely on legal forms and arguments. But no one really understands them, and they don’t really mean anything”.
He said: “now is the time for an open and honest debate, an open debate about Europe, but it should not be governed by legal nonsense. The sad thing is that the EU, which is supposed to be about the rule of law, is tying itself in knots to obfuscate politics. The guarantees say more about what the Irish people want, in a kind of a cartoon depiction of what the leaders think the Irish referendum was about”. Waterfield concluded by saying it was indeed necessary to have this debate, particularly in a time of economic crisis.