This is an analysis of the background to the forthcoming Lisbon Treaty referendum which was originally written for Znet.
Here we go again
These days in Ireland, people are mostly either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. There are also, crucially, the ‘Dont Knows’. This situation has come about because the disobedient citizens of Ireland defeated the European Union’s proposed Lisbon Treaty in a referendum in 2008. The Nos had won and the solidly Yes establishment consensus was furious with us. We were ‘ungrateful’ and ‘ignorant’. We were ‘liars’. We would be sent to detention and our pocket money would be withheld. None of our European friends would want to play with us any more and would want to punish us severely, what is more. They would hold their party without us in future and we would have to wait outside the door looking longingly in at the feast. The Lisbon Treaty has far greater significance than any of this. If it is not also the focus of popular attention in the US, China, Russia, India and the Middle East among others then it really should be, though it’s certain that there are plenty of powerful people in those places who are watching its progress carefully.
For its own constitutional reasons, Ireland had to put the treaty to its electorate for approval. Alone among all of the member states of the union, this pesky little country of just over 4 million people had delivered a verdict which should, because of a requirement for unanimity among EU states, have seen the EU go back to the drawing board or abandon the treaty altogether. But things seldom work like they are supposed to round these parts and now we are being told instead to go back to the polling booth to do as ordered last time and vote yes in a re-run referendum on the exact same treaty. This has all resulted in a heated public debate that it had been intended should never take place but which has gone some way to exposing the enormous underbelly of the Lisbon Treaty project. And so we find ourselves in Ireland with the fate of 500, 000, 000 European people in our hands, almost certainly most of them begging us not to approve the treaty. We have had to do this vote/re-vote routine with two earlier pieces of European legislation already as Irish people try to resist the increasingly but now utterly discredited ‘liberal’ or ‘free market’ economics which the EU is now trying to foist on us permanently. But the Irish have obstinately refused to learn the lesson being rammed down our throats: get it right first time. Each time around, however, the electorate appears to lose its collective nerve and we submit in the second vote to the prescribed view. We have a bit of a shout about things and then settle down to behaving like compliant Europeans, though at the time of writing there is a possibility that the outcome will be different this time. The Nos comprise mainly working people, trade unionists and peace activists for example, who fear a reduction in employment rights and a militarised, less democratic Europe. The make-up of the first Lisbon Treaty vote was no exception – although it was notable that a large majority of women had voted against it. Right -wing opponents of the treaty, though far fewer in number, had been the focus of hysterical pro-treaty media attention, as they are again now, but that did nothing to persuade the majority who had different reasons for saying no to Lisbon.
Whatever criticism might have been made about the commerce and trade focused-EU in the past (and there are many that can be made) there was a time when we in Ireland looked to its legal and other institutions to secure employment and other rights because our government were resisting EU rights initiatives with every means at its disposal. Domestically, Ireland’s relationship with the EU as a member state has always been ambivalent depending on whether it was the beneficiary of financial largesse or having to meet unwanted EU-wide obligations – which it tries with all its considerable wile to wriggle out of – and frequently only conforms to nominally. Irish people have been denied many of the now diminishing benefits of membership by the cartel-like way much business is conducted here. Insurance, banking and other sectors frequently do not respect either the spirit or letter of earlier EU law which should have afforded citizens greater protection and opportunity than it does in many instances.
Like all colonial governments, the British were nothing if not careful to ensure that whoever ended up in charge after they had gone would protect landowners and established business interests first and foremost. That approach was a welcome one generally, too, among the shopkeepers, trades people and exporters who stood to benefit from trade with England. The leaders of the 1916 uprising – particularly those who envisaged an inclusive, egalitarian Ireland – were almost all executed. In declaring a republic at the time of the rising this is what they had said:
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.
Eamon De Valera who was a member of this group was spared from execution for his part in the rebellion and went on to become Taoiseach (prime minister) – and later President – having fomented civil war when the country voted in favour of the establishment of the 26-county state -though he never did anything to undo that outcome for the rest of his political career. He also, in effect, stole an estimated $2m of funds he had raised while campaigning in the US beforehand. The modus operandi of his party, now known as Fianna Fail (The Soldiers of Destiny), who have led the country for most of the time since then, was set in stone. If democratic processes might not secure your preferred outcome, there are ways around them. If you need money, diverting public and private funds to your personal and political causes is always an option. The encouraging aims of the heroes of 1916 were abandoned and the would-be-priest and infamous chauvinist, ‘Dev’, drove the country into a stifling, ultra- Catholic, decades-long bleakness during which time censorship was rife and the Catholic church was enshrined in the constitution to the prejudice of people of other faiths and of none. Thousands of Irish children were systematically raped, vilely neglected and beaten in Church-run institutions right up into the 1980s. This was a veritable industry – 170,000 children passed through the ‘industrial schools’ – enabling the religious orders to make money out of the labour of children often arbitrarily seized and forced into ‘care’ – whole families of them at a time. This issue is illustrative. Though the other political parties are culpable too, more than any of them Fianna Fail facilitated and covered up the actions of the religious. It is the Fianna Fail party who, as late as 2002 actually indemnified all of the 18 institutions and surviving perpetrators involved in the abuse against prosecution and who just a few weeks ago defended their retrospective protection of the abusers on sickeningly spurious grounds. This was after they had spent decades publicly and legally humiliating victims who had tried to sue for damages.
The party has also been mired in a succession of ugly corruption scandals over the last two decades which have dominated politics, wearied the electorate and seen two Fianna Fail Taoiseachs disgraced. Both of them were implicated in the give-away of all our rights to our considerable oil and gas reserves in circumstances not explained to this day. The Irish version of the economic crash is the worst of any developed country, not least because of the corrupt relationship between Fianna Fail and a clique of wealthy Irish property developers who have been funding the party in return for obscenely favourable treatment at the expense of the rest of the indigenous economy. The government is currently trying to railroad through a piece of legislation which many believe is an attempt to bury the evidence of what has gone on and also to pay off backers who are calling in favours having run themselves into staggering debt. If passed, the legislation would see the Irish government owning the largest property asset company in the world, much of it irredeemably toxic speculative debt. The Irish people are being asked to guarantee and pay for this ‘plan’ which will be used to compensate the banks and developers involved. This is all on top of enormous bailouts and guarantees already given. The government claims that because of ‘commercial sensitivity’, we who will be paying for this for two or three generations cannot be told who is involved or how much they are each to be paid. As with the child abuse scandal, total indemnity for the perpetrators is the order of the day.
All this and much more besides has resulted in a deeply chauvinistic and administratively corrupt society. There is of course much more to the Irish people than to their business and political elites and we assert ourselves everywhere in spite of them. But the best of what we could be as a society has never been appreciated by our mean and narrow politicians, let alone encouraged or enabled to flourish. There is a core minority of voters who stubbornly return Fianna Fail to government again and again, unwilling or unable to extricate themselves from the old civil war mindset. For them, and because of them, Ireland still functions in De Valera’s image and likeness.
Ireland in the EU
The original European Economic Community, in this context, was a god-send to Ireland. If the treatment of the victims of institutionalised child abuse is anything to go by, women for example, would even now in all probability be without the rights which the conservatively Catholic, male government had to be dragged screaming and kicking to confer in line with European Directives emananating from a pool of capitalist thought which, unlike in Ireland, had at least some sense of humanity about such issues, whatever its ultimate objectives. In the midst of our present economic disaster, the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, has been occupying himself with forcing a retrograde blasphemy law onto the statute books. Recently, measures have been taken to ‘rebalance’ the gender quota for entry into training for medicine where young Irish women have been succeeding better than young men. This has resulted in the rejection for medical training of bright, well-adjusted and hard working women who achieved the highest possible results in their Leaving Certificate examinations – 600 points – in favour of young men who scored as few 480. There is no concern to rebalance the gender quota at the top levels of the same profession or in public, political and business institutions across the board – still heavily male-dominated. Plans are now afoot to conduct similar ‘rebalancing’ exercises in the professions of law and education, amongst others. Employment rights too have been subjected to sustained attack. Trade Union leaders here have grown frustratingly supine in the face of the onward march of neo-liberalism, caving in to angry treatment by government, business interests and a deeply compliant media. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions recently saw to it that a motion for a national strike against pay and other cuts which have devastated the incomes of the lower paid, was defeated.
In years gone by, workers might have sought recourse at the European Court of Justice but increasingly employer-friendly rulings and interpretations there have seen a slow erosion of entitlements. The Lisbon Treaty is the culmination of this trend at EU level – a result of concerted efforts by big business to take the union in an irreversible, neo-liberal direction. It includes provision for enshrining worker-unfriendly case law into its terms.
If we vote yes to Lisbon we can kiss goodbye to what remains of that relatively benevolent EU era. It’s no coincidence that here in Ireland the extreme neo-liberal employers group, the Irish Business and Enterprise Council (IBEC), who have done more than any other group to diminish workers rights in Ireland, are enthusiastic about the Lisbon Treaty. Unelected representatives of IBEC saturate government committees right across the policy spectrum. The Irish media are in a thrall to them. RTE (the national broadcaster) solemnly announce the contents of IBEC press releases as if revealing commandments handed down from on high. IBEC are gleeful:
The Lisbon Reform Treaty creates the legal basis for the liberalisation of services of general economic interest (Art. 106). A yes vote for the Lisbon Treaty creates the potential for increased opportunities for Irish business particularly in areas subject to increasing liberalisation such as Health, Education, Transport, Energy and the Environment.
IBEC are the prime movers behind the privatisation of our health service now being ruthlessly modeled on the abject failure that is the US health care system by the ideologically-driven Minister for Health whose former party colleagues have openly preached the notion that ‘a little inequality is a good thing’. As in other member states, pharmaceutical companies, GM food manufacturers and a host of other corporate interests, actively lured into Ireland by IBEC, are bending the EU to their agenda. That agenda is the creation of gigantic big business monopolies at the expense of everyone else which will see many high-street businesses devastated if it succeeds. IBEC demands ‘competitiveness’ - a now globally familiar corporate euphemism for driving both wages and corporate taxes down – the better for their members to achieve higher profits and dividends for themselves.
Ireland has secured an astonishing 25% of all US inward investment in Europe in recent years on the back of its excessively favourable tax-exempting, subsidy-providing and grant-allocating terms to get the multinationals in. The minnow has invited the sharks to sup in the Irish taxpayers fish bowl. ‘Management consultants’ have made a small fortune out of the public purse – advising both ends of the government/foreign investor relationship while enjoying the most undemocratic and unparalleled direct access to policy-making of any country in the EU. This system has laid waste to the function of our parliamentary democracy and sees elected representatives and civil servants rendered superfluous in policy making.
US corporations look for a little more punch and have two key lobbying agencies: The American Chamber of Commerce and the US Ambassador. The American Chamber of Commerce hosts a number of business lunches and special conferences with key decision makers. It boasts that it has ‘excellent access to Irish and European policy networks’ and can ‘keep Irish decision makers focused on the factors that contribute to the continuing attractiveness of Ireland as a location for foreign direct investment.’ The Chamber vigorously lobbied against an EU directive, which would oblige employers to consult their staff and provide them with information on issues affecting them. Instead of an automatic right to such consultation, they demanded that it could only be triggered by a written request signed by 10 percent of workers. In this way, the names of the employees might be noted by the very management which was reluctant to consult them in the first place! The Irish state duly agreed and the Employees (Provision of Information and Consultation) Act bore, according to Industrial Relations News, the ‘indelible stamp’ of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland. The Chamber works very closely with the US Ambassador, who, it appears, intervenes extensively to lobby for US business interests.
One thing we know for certain: all of this inward ‘investment’ has done nothing to protect Ireland from the money-market and property-speculation- induced crash, experienced more severely here than in any other ‘developed’ nation because of abject failures of regulation and government. Many of our fair weather friends have already departed these shores to places like Poland who are now going down the Irish route.
Doing something about the EU
IBEC and their European counterparts resolved some while ago that something had to be done about the ‘socialist- leaning’ EU.
I would like to see Europe doing three things.
For a start, I would like to see it taking on board the need for flexibility in the labour market. If we are going to bring in more legislation that affects the labour market, let’s make sure that it does not deprive people of jobs down the line. I would like to see full liberalisation right across Europe in sectors such as transport, aviation, energy and telecommunications. Competitive provision of essential services can stimulate economic activity and have beneficial consequences for employment.
I would like to see an acceptance of the need for tax reform and tax reduction and I would, of course, be delighted to see Europe forgetting about any plans for tax harmonisation.
So spake the then Minister for Trade and Enterprise, Mary Harney at an IBEC conference back in 1999. The government has religiously pursued these exact policies and the economy has been savaged by them: approaching 500,000 people are now unemployed and business closures are at an unprecedented level. Harney was and is promoting the exact ethos that has prevailed disastrously in the US and world financial markets acknowledged by former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, the man who could arguably be said to be most responsible for them, to have been a mistake. But the ‘race to the bottom’ continues apace. The great shame of it is that so many are caught up in the hubris.
An aggressive cabal already have enormous influence on the EU via direct access to the most powerful and least democratic echelons of the EU hierarchy. There are now some 15,000 corporate lobbyists stationed permanently in Brussels who have so far resisted meaningful attempts by concerned groups to render their activities accountable and transparent.
Enter the Lisbon Treaty
The new “liberalized’ Europe is to be backed up with obligatory expenditure on militarisation so that EU member states can support pre-emptive ‘peace-keeping’ missions around the world. The Yes side brazenly and vehemently deny this – an aspect of the treaty they are nervous about discussing – but it is all quite clearly there in the text of the treaty. Whether Ireland participates directly in military actions or not, the EU is being beefed up to function as an ally of the US who – aside from its catastrophic economic collapse – was near bankrupted anyway by its trillions of dollars of war spending to secure control of the oil and gas reserves of other nations. Lisbon is also a response to the rising global influence of countries like China, India and Russia – who have in turn formed their own economic bloc to protect their interests from the aggressive US/EU threat. The US is even now deploying war heads in Czechoslovakia pointed eastwards while at the same time vilifying an understandably defensive Russia which is not responsible for this aggressive restarting of the Cold War.
It is all very simple. The EU is building up to offer the US ‘third country’ support for its increasingly deadly resource grabs in the Middle East. Follow the routes of the oil and gas pipelines that are being laid by the US across the region and you will be travelling through all of the countries with which it is now violently engaged. (Scroll down at this link to index of maps and images – which can be enlarged.) This is an expensive and personnel-intensive business and the US cannot go it alone indefinitely. This is where its most significant ally comes into play. The EU has also been insistently supportive of US policy in Palestine/Israel where member states like Britain have offshore energy interests promised them by Israel. Unfortunately Gaza is in the way, but that problem is being dealt with, despite official hand-wringing about the Israeli’s having overdone it a bit last Christmas. All of this needs to be ‘defended’ from the ‘threat’ of the Middle Eastern countries the US are now bombing to submission. These countries are not about to accept the violent imposition of these objectives. This is our ‘terrorist threat’ – the people who have no choice but to resist or be raped of their autonomy and resources – resources which have been coveted by Western powers for over a century.
EU militarisation would also be a major bonanza for the powerful EU arms industry which Irish big business is heavily and profitably involved in. The treaty speaks in Orwellian fashion of making obligatory provision for ‘joint disarmament operations’, ‘peace-making’, support for ‘third countries in combating terrorism in their territories’ and ‘rapid access to appropriations for urgent financing’ of ‘civilian and military assets’. The proposed obligations on member countries are discussed here by Joe Higgins, MEP an opponent of the Treaty. Wider analysis of treaty text here.
A metaphor for the European Union
The CEO of Ryanair recently announced his support for the treaty in characteristic fashion. Lisbon would indeed be to Europe what Michael O’ Leary is to airline travel. His is an appropriate face for the planned new Europe where people can expect to be treated with as much contempt and arrogance as are his passengers. If the treaty goes through expect to be told, O’ Leary style, ‘we’ve had your votes now you can get lost’ – because it will be our last opportunity to have a direct say in a treaty referendum of this sort.
Yes voters will find out, as with advertised Ryan air flight costs – the hidden charges, exclusion clauses and other terms and conditions that have been deviously woven into this constitution masquerading as a treaty.
“Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly …all the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way.”
Former French President V. Giscard D’Estaing, who headed the drafting of the EU Constitution which the French and the Dutch rejected in their 2005 referendums, and which is now being implemented through the Lisbon Treaty.
Le Monde, 14 July, 2007
The Irish Media
An analysis of the media coverage of the first Lisbon referendum showed that coverage was massively biased towards the Yes side. ‘RTE Falling at the Feet of Power‘ revealed some interesting statistics.
RTÉ’s coverage of the Lisbon Treaty campaign was unbalanced with contributors from the Yes side making up 62.75% of speakers in discussions and news items focusing on the Lisbon Treaty. This suggests that perhaps it was RTÉ policy to deliberately limit coverage of the No side’s arguments. It is to be hoped this research may elicit further explanations.
That situation can only be worse now because since then a decision was taken that RTE’s obligation to equal treatment in referendum coverage did not mean equal air time. The Yes campaign this time round has been headed up by the neo-liberal and former Progressive Democrat, Pat Cox who is an adviser to the European Commission. Mr Cox is accused of having potential conflicts of interest in holding this role, though he denies this is the case. A vanguard of shiny-eyed young people have been deployed to persuade their peers. Preened and primed to target the Irish ‘youth vote’, ‘Generation Yes’ are happy clappily on message for the government and the EU. A recent edition of RTE’s current affairs programme, Prime Time, was clearly aimed at women who, as mentioned above, were the biggest demographic grouping in the No side last time. There were more women in that one RTE report than would ordinarily be evident in 6. The graphic was of a track-racing woman. When it comes to women the station is ordinarily guiltier of tokenism. The report was an insultingly superficial treatment of the issue and included inaccurate and false claims about the treaty made by a homely narrator in reassuring tones that were presented as statements of fact. Though the subsequent debate on the programme between Cox and Higgins was conducted fairly by Miriam O’ Callaghan, the programme’s most senior investigative journalist, its overall editing and context was unmistakably pro treaty. RTE’s editing of news and current affairs material is widely regarded as notoriously pro government among media watchers and analysts, not least because of the backlash it will experience if it even accidentally crosses that line. Retribution is swift with journalists finding themselves sidelined or dropped completely.
The ‘neutral’ Referendum Commission has circulated an information booklet to every home in Ireland carrying a picture of a woman’s hands held prayerfully aloft in a chalice like Y shape, cradling the words ‘The Lisbon Treaty’. It too is full of soothing reassurances while being woefully inadequate and misleading in substance. It claims that the legal situation with regard to the treaty has changed. This is completely untrue.
The themes of the Yes side are these: ‘it’s just a tidying up exercise'; ‘it will create more efficient decision-making procedures'; ‘militarisation plans are being exaggerated’, ‘it’s only anti-abortionists who are objecting’ and so on. However, EU leaders themselves say otherwise and it is shocking to see what they have been saying over our heads.
So what’s new?
This is the exact same treaty that was voted on last time. None of the concerns we had about it then have been addressed. In the UK’s House of Lords, Baroness Kinnock confirmed that ‘guarantees’ offered to the Irish government in a political pantomime aimed at assuaging voters’ doubts, do not and will not have any bearing whatsoever on the Treaty.
The Minister for Europe (Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead):
My Lords, the June European Council discussed and agreed the guarantees that the Irish Government wanted in order to address the concerns of the Irish people about the Lisbon treaty. The European Council conclusions say that the decision,
“gives legal guarantee that certain matters of concern to the Irish people will be unaffected by the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon”.
Those guarantees do not change the Lisbon treaty; the European Council conclusions are very clear on them. The Lisbon treaty, as debated and decided by our Parliament, will not be changed and, on the basis of these guarantees, Ireland will proceed to have a second referendum in October.
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, has reiterated this in the UK’s House of Commons. The ‘guarantees’ are manifestly meaningless, though Taoiseach Brian Cowen had unsuccessfully tried to have them added to the Treaty as a protocol. They are now reduced to the status of mere declarations with no certainty about when or if they would ever have any legal effect. Relations between the UK and Irish leaders were somewhat strained during these and other negotiations.
If people are concerned to preserve whatever vestige of fairness and equity the EU has had up to now, the last thing they should do is to vote this wretched, big business-favouring constitution onto the statute books. The referendum is due to take place on October 2nd and the level of media bullying of No voters is now at an increasingly snarling and feverish pitch. The small and silly Catholic group COIR who oppose the Treaty for fear it will usher in abortion and ‘immigrants’ are the focus of intense media ridicule in an attempt to caricature all no campaigners. It’s a contest between rich and poor, the powerful and the weak – with a wavering middle class in the driving seat as ever – unsure which way to jump. It seems the answer may come down to nothing more than the degree to which many in this group feel economically insured enough to take a gamble on accepting the promises and reassurances of politicians about the Lisbon Treaty. Others again are prepared to take the Lisbon Treaty and its proponents at face value. Or maybe some of them will be betting on the idea that their personal boats will be floated even if others are sunk. Whatever their thinking, they hold our futures in their hands.
Photo courtesy of Donnacha O’Caoimh of inphotos.org
Latest posts by Miriam Cotton (see all)
- Strikes Now! - January 30, 2013
- A Curse on the Zombie Establishment - October 7, 2010
- Harney Remaining in Dept. of Health Illustrates the Priorities of the Government - March 29, 2010
- Denying Parental Rights is a Big Mistake - March 13, 2010
- Did his voters freeze George Lee out? - February 11, 2010