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Irish Lessons on Democracy

The E.U.'s inner writhings are an object lesson for romantic internationalists who see "multilateralism" and the pooling of sovereignty as the way forward.

The European Union's latest pratfall--occasioned by Ireland's rejection last week of a new constitutional treaty--is worth noting for several reasons. To begin with, the outcome has practical implications for the United States. The next president will wish to refresh the alliance with Europe. Ireland's vote, however, throws the E.U. into disarray--or let us say that it perpetuates the disarray already in progress. Anyway, the president will be talking to himself: Europe will be too busy gazing at its own innards to look elsewhere.

Beyond this, the E.U.'s inner writhings are an object lesson for romantic internationalists who worry about global governance and see "multilateralism" and the pooling of sovereignty as the way forward. Never forget that the pantomime in Europe is multilateralism writ large. More on that in a moment.


Most important, though, this latest setback is another affront to the dignity of Europe's leaders and their aspiration to have Europe "punch its weight" in the world--and it is thus very funny. Granted, you had to be following the plot to see the joke, but when I read that Ireland's voters had told the master bureaucrats of Brussels where to put the Lisbon Treaty, I laughed till I ached. The Irish are now among the richest people in Europe--richer than the British--thanks to the European Union. They have gained more in cold, hard cash, and in other ways, from their membership in the E.U. than has any other nation. But even they have had enough.

Ireland was the only country in the Union with plans to put the new treaty to a referendum. Anywhere else, one supposed, that would have been taking a risk: In many other countries, citizens were thought likely to reject the new agreement if asked, just like voters in France and the Netherlands rejected a slightly different version in 2005. This time around, therefore, government leaders decided that the treaty was not a constitution and that popular votes were unnecessary--even if votes had been promised (as in Britain, for instance). There would be no more voting, except in Ireland, whose own constitution insisted on it. But that was all right, because how could the Irish, of all people, say no?

Well, they did.


Now, you may be wondering what this controversial treaty actually says. Many Irish voters were curious about that too. Pollsters found that "Do not understand the treaty" was the most-cited reason for voting no. Earlier, when governments were pressing the previous version of the treaty on their citizens--and calling it a constitution--every Irish citizen was given a copy to read. This time, that would have been impossible. The point of the new version was to disguise under layers of complication the fact that it was much the same as the old version--the one that voters in France and the Netherlands had already vetoed. So the new treaty took the form of hundreds of pages of amendments to thousands of pages of earlier treaties. It was designed to be unintelligible. In European constitutional affairs, transparency has its limits.

In simple terms, despite the deliberate opacity, Europe's governments mainly want to make the Union more workable. Now that the E.U. has 27 members, decision-making rules designed for a much smaller club need to be streamlined. But what does "streamlined" mean in practice? It has to mean one of two things--either narrowing the Union's areas of competence, so that Brussels intrudes less on national governments, or else moving even further away from the E.U.'s first core principle, that any single country can block a decision. (The treaty ratification process is itself a case in point: It demonstrates the paralysis that the national veto induces in an ever-enlarging Union.)

The problem is, the further the E.U. moves away from its earlier pri--nciple of unanimous approval, the less its member states are self-governing nations. And the citizens of those nations seem weirdly attached to the idea that they live in self-governing democracies, with governments accountable directly to them.

This is the nub of the issue. In Europe (and not just in Europe) there is indeed a balance to be struck between diminished national sovereignty and enhanced collective policy-making. The purpose of the Union is to shift this balance a long way, a feat of constitutional re-engineering whether it is acknowledged as such or not. The proposed rebalancing is not necessarily wrong--but it needs to be done in a way that commands the confidence and consent of Europe's citizens, with the result enshrined in a readable constitution. The part about confidence and consent is what gives Europe's political elite such trouble.


Five years ago, for a brief moment, a constitution with proper consensual foundations was the aim. There was a "constitutional convention." References to Philadelphia underlined the sense that this was a historic moment. People talked about democracy and about the E.U.'s "democratic deficit." The fact that most of Europe's citizens seemed to want the balance of national sovereignty and collective effectiveness pushed back--toward a less ambitious E.U., with some restoration of eroded national sovereignty--never came up.

In fact, the convention produced a constitutional treaty that pushed firmly the other way, by increasing the number of laws that could be passed by majority vote of E.U. members. Leaders remained committed to a vision that broadened the Union to new members, and deepened it with new areas of policy jurisdiction and new surrenders of national sovereignty.

As often in the history of the European Union, governments were thus defying public opinion rather than expressing it or even attempting to guide it. When France and the Netherlands rejected the treaty, the constitutional architects should have started over. Instead, they paused and came back with the same proposal, lightly disguised. That new treaty is what Ireland, of all countries, has now rejected. Will this result force governments to think again? Sadly, no. It will cause delay and confusion, as before--as ever--but no new intellectual exertion. A German minister spoke for the rest when he said, "A few million Irish cannot decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans."

There you have it: the constitutional sensibility of the European Union. Never mind that the treaty ratification rules require unanimous approval by member states. The Irish will have to change their minds or be sat on. If that response was good enough for the French and the Dutch, it is good enough for them. And in the future--please!--no more votes.

Though the European Union, heaven knows, has its own unique pathology, America's homegrown advocates of pooled sovereignty and multilateral good government ought to reflect on Europe's predicament.

As practiced by the Bush administration, U.S. unilateralism has earned a bad name both at home and abroad. America's instinctive resistance to international legal entanglements--in the form of obligations to the United Nations, participation in the Kyoto climate-change protocol and the International Criminal Court, and so forth--is much condemned. National sovereignty, critics say, is increasingly an illusion. Global economic integration, the argument goes, erodes meaningful national independence whether governments like it or not. Only through cooperation and the "pooling of sovereignty" can governments regain some purchase over their countries' destinies. This is exactly the conviction that powers the European Union.

In the first place, the argument that political and economic interdependence erodes the practical value of national sovereignty--for many, an article of faith--is vastly overstated. Globalization and distinctive national preferences can coexist quite happily. The United States has comparatively low taxes and a small public sector; Sweden has high taxes and an elaborate welfare state. Both are open economies. Those differing national preferences can continue indefinitely--until governments, pursuing international political convergence as a goal in its own right, choose to lean against them.

To be sure, there are areas where cooperation is valuable or even essential, such as measures to promote trade (mutual recognition of domestic regulation) and to control greenhouse gases. But even here, important distinctions need to be made. At one extreme, cooperation can be ad hoc, voluntary, limited to specific goals, and careful to leave maximum discretion to the participating countries. At the other, cooperation can express itself in the creation of supranational institutions with broadly defined purposes, legal powers over the partners, and an encompassing vision of a new political identity.

The first of the poles is, so to speak, cooperation among unilateralists. At the other stands the European Union. What Europe's citizens have learned from experience is that visionary forms of multilateralism widen the separation between political power and the popular will, and are a far more potent threat to democracy than is globalization. It is not the implacable logic of economic integration that sets the desires of the Irish, the French, the Dutch, and the rest at zero. It is Europe's governments, jointly pursuing an unwanted idea.

This article appears in the June 21, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.

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