A message to the elites

by Harry Browne

There are plenty of good reasons to vote ‘No’, again, on Lisbon - far more than there are reasons to vote ‘Yes’. We shouldn’t be ashamed of saying that the best of them are only partly to do with the specificities of the treaty itself.

On the other hand, we should be careful about some of the debating points we adopt.

Anti-imperialists, peace campaigners and workers’ rights advocates on the ‘No’ side have the best set of arguments, to be sure. The writings of Kieran Allen and Andy Storey, among others, are the gold standard and I wouldn’t presume to add to them. But a few folks on ‘our side’ - and with that phrase I don’t include the right-wingers who happen to support the same vote but are otherwise alien politically - are wandering down some political dark alleys.

We should not, for example, get hung up on a ‘No Means No’ kick, as though in putting the Lisbon question to another referendum the Government were behaving like a rapist. Given that many of us on the left would consider ourselves advocates of more direct democracy - and are heirs to a democratic tradition that has often advocated annual parliaments and frequent referenda - it does seem rather churlish for us to suggest that the people aren’t allowed to change their minds, as they eventually did on divorce. Admittedly a simple cry of “we told you already” has some popular, populist traction - we never, after all, get a re-run when we vote the way the elite wants us to first-time. But it’s unsustainable as a real argument.

Then there’s ‘national sovereignty’. Even among some on the left who don’t call themselves nationalists, there is a temptation to adopt this line, perhaps conflating it with the principle of ‘decentralisation’ - i.e. it’s better to have power concentrated here where we can reach it more handily. But ‘national sovereignty’ in practice, in the Ireland of this era, means ‘government by property developers and multinationals’. It is possible to conceive of a more democratic, federalised Europe that we’d be happy to see establish some of the broad legal principles under which we’d like to live. The point for the purposes of this referendum is: Lisbon definitely ain’t it - in fact it moves that Europe further away. But the idea that ‘national sovereignty’ will help Ireland turn into a more benign and just environment before Europe does is just pie in the sky. Meanwhile ‘national sovereignty’ means restricting Irish women’s access to abortions.

I was asked recently to speak in a debate titled ‘What has Europe ever done for us?’ I liked the title, both for the People’s Front of Judea allusion and because it naturally breaks down into two more fundamental questions: What is Europe? Who is (are?) ‘us’?

Europe surely is not just the EU 27, and it’s certainly not the European Union and its institutions. Europe includes the majorities of the French and Dutch electorate who voted against the EU Constitution, of which the Lisbon Treaty is a clone with a few unimportant genes snipped out. It also of course includes the majorities in Spain and Luxembourg who voted for the Constitution, for their own diverse reasons. In global and historic terms Europe is all sorts of things, including a vicious global conqueror for more than half-a-millennium and the home of nations who blithely firebombed each other’s cities within living memory. Since that bloody period that commenced 70 years ago this month, Europe’s imperialist role has been subordinate to that of the United States, but there is no reason to assume that is a permanent condition.

As for ‘us’, most of us are the beleaguered people of Great Recession-era Ireland, being pummeled for the neoliberal sins of our political and financial masters, regardless of Lisbon. We are also citizens of the world, surely capable of assessing a political project in terms other than our own personal or even national self-interest. There is no evidence, in any case, that our self-interest would be served by ratifying Lisbon - but in the voting booth perhaps we can also reach out in solidarity to the people outside the EU whose lives are blighted by the bloc’s destructive trade and aid policies.

A ‘No’ vote won’t change those policies straight away, not even close. And in the short term another ‘No’ could be messy locally (especially for Irish politicians). But ‘No’ will be a start, a message to elites that we’ve had enough, a shout that will echo across Europe and beyond. Across the globe those elites have been in a crisis; at the moment they seem to be breathing quiet sighs of relief, as there are signs that they can crawl out of trouble, at the expense of taxpayers, public services and any residual notion of genuine democracy. Voting ‘No’ is a way of showing them that they’re not out of trouble yet.

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