The Magazine

Resistance Is Futile

The triumph of the Eurocrats over the peoples of Europe.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive--at least if you were Valéry Marie René Georges Giscard d'Estaing. The one-term president of France was awarded the job in 2002 of chairing the convention responsible for designing a constitution for the European Union. He compared his fellow delegates--a dismal, handpicked, largely Eurofederalist claque--with America's Founding Fathers, and, splendidly de haut en bas (however tongue-in-cheek), told this self-important rabble that, in the "villages" they came from, statues would be put up in their honor--"on horseback" no less.

But that's not quite how it worked out. When the villagers saw the hideous blend of bureaucratic centralism, transnational control, political correctness, and daft pomposity that slithered out of Giscard's convention, they were none too impressed. The draft constitution staggered its way to approval in some EU countries, but was killed off by referenda in France and Holland in mid-2005.

Except that's not quite how it worked out. Properly speaking, those two defeats should have put a stake through the heart of the constitution. Instead the ratification process was frozen "for a period of reflection"--a dignified term for buying time to cook up a scheme to bypass the awkwardness of voter disapproval. The scheme was the Treaty of Lisbon.

It preserved the content of the draft constitution, but junked its form. The constitution that had been rejected was scrapped, but its essence was preserved under the guise of a series of amendments to the EU's existing treaties that smuggled in most of the changes which would once have been incorporated in Giscard's monstrosity. It was a stroke of genius. Dropping the "c" word minimized the legal or political risk that referenda might once again be required. It was also an insult. Neither Giscard nor the key architect of the new treaty, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, made any attempt to conceal their view that the substance of the constitution was alive and well.

Channeling Louis XIV, Nicolas Sarkozy ruled that France's disobedient voters would be denied any further say on the matter. No surprise there, but I like to think that Merkel's coup might have caused a few pangs in the ranks of Holland's rather more respectable Council of State (the government's highest advisory body). Maybe it did, but the august if pliable Dutchmen somehow felt able to determine that the new treaty did not contain enough "constitutional" elements to require a referendum. Meanwhile, Britain's shameless Labour government just brazened things out. Labour had been reelected in 2005 on the back of a manifesto that included the promise of a referendum should the United Kingdom be asked to sign up for a revived constitution. The Lisbon Treaty was, however, cooed Messrs Blair and Brown, something completely different. There would be no popular vote.

In Ireland, though, significant changes to the EU's treaties require a constitutional amendment, and the Irish constitution can only be amended by referendum. The Irish government did not attempt to dodge its responsibilities. Nor did Irish voters. In June 2008, the Lisbon Treaty was voted down. As the treaty had to be ratified in each of the EU's 27 member states, the Irish snub should have finished it off. Except (you will be unsurprised to know) that's not quite how it worked out.

Within minutes of the Irish vote, the EU's top bureaucrat, Commission president José Barroso, announced that the treaty was not dead. When it comes to the European project, no does not mean no--as Danish and Irish voters had already discovered in the aftermath of their rejection of earlier EU treaties. Ratifications of Lisbon rolled in from elsewhere, the Irish government secured some placatory legal guarantees, setting the stage for a mulligan this October. In the event, however, the result of this second vote was determined not by the changes won by the Dublin government, but by the global financial meltdown, a blow that had brought Ireland's over-leveraged economy to its knees.

There was something almost refreshing in the lack of subtlety with which Barroso traveled to Limerick to announce--just weeks before the second referendum--that Brussels (in other words, the EU's conscripted taxpayers) would be spending 14.8 million euros to help workers at Dell's Irish plant find new jobs. In case anyone missed the point, Barroso also reminded his listeners that the European Central Bank had lent over 120 billion euros to the battered Irish banking system. Frazzled by financial disaster and fearful of the consequences of alienating their paymasters, Ireland's voters reversed their rejection of the Lisbon Treaty just a couple of weeks later.