Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Leaders who want to stay in the EU club keep mum

THE European Council at its most powerful -- represented by heads of government and foreign ministers -- met as 'The European Union Club' over the past two days, and put on a benign display of its compassion and concern for poor old Ireland which has got itself into a mess over the Lisbon Treaty and needs rescuing.

This profoundly undemocratic group of men and women, who meet in secret session, keep no minutes or notes, reveal no details of voting -- if they do vote -- and issue ex cathedra decisions, for all the world like a papal conclave, have told us, roughly, through the commission president, what they think.

The president, Jose-Manuel Barroso, thinks -- he is not sure himself, but he thinks it -- that Ireland can be reassured, and this message was endlessly repeated during the two days. The first piece of nonsense to drop from the meeting, relayed with enthusiasm by Micheal Martin, was that we could have our commissioner if we voted 'Yes'.

This of course has always been the case. Even under the Nice Treaty, if we stay with that document, we can all have commissioners, with one country having the marginally more important role of EU foreign ambassador. We all knew this. It was made clear by our own Attorney General, David Byrne, on the Nice Treaty. And in any case, what does having our own commissioner mean? He serves the commission, not us. Charlie McCreevy demonstrated, last week, that independence of thought and words is a possibility, but what he said was an embarrassment to Cowen's government, not an endorsement, nor a friendly message.

In the course of Mr Barroso's interview with Sean Whelan, shown again and again on Thursday night, the use of the word, 'think' was emphasised. In subsequent reporting it was dropped. The news coverage gave a misleading, far more factual reassurance on the other issues of neutrality, morality, workers' rights.

This was aimed at satisfying Irish voters that what they said 'No' to last summer can be turned around so that more people will say 'Yes'.

The whole Brussels event -- this club meeting -- was a jolly piece of theatre, made familiar to us all by frequent repetition. Public displays of solidarity, with much embracing and laughing, kissing even, seem to coincide with political hurdles faced by the European Union and then cleared and resolved. The more difficult the problems are, the more funny they seem to our leaders. But that is club life, you know. At heart they all eventually think the same and they know. That's the difference. We don't.

It hardly needed a second day. It had all, more or less, been worked out in advance.

Meanwhile, deep in the woods, trouble was stirring in the form of Declan Ganley launching an opposition to what we were all witnessing. The significance of what he is attempting is considerable. Whether it will succeed is a question for the future. But what he is attempting is a political 'first' and it goes to the heart of Europe's denial of true democracy.

There are many opponents already of the European Union, and what it claims is democracy. They rotate around the 'single-party' or 'no-party' form of power that operates out of Brussels. It is profoundly undemocratic but no European leader dares to say so. Wanting to be in the club, they keep mum.

What they are all subscribing to, behind Europe's fairly impenetrable wall of bureaucracy, is a supposedly benign form of totalitarianism.

Wait for it. I know. The term has bad antecedents -- possibly the worst were in the 20th century-- but it also has the generally benign master-plan of British Empire administration, which was the single-minded and single-principled imperial administration, without opposition, across the whole globe. In the case of the old, 18th century empire, the American people simply stood out for representation in the light of Westminster taxation, said such rule is enough, and made a democracy that has survived. Declan Ganley wants to do the same and invites the potential 'No' Voters in the other 26 countries, who have not been given the opportunity, to support him.

In essence, the European totalitarianism to which Declan Ganley is opposed, is government without opposition. He does not oppose Europe. He supports it. But he marvels at the dichotomy between the member states, on the one hand, and the central government that presides over them.

Opposition exists, as every European democrat knows, within each sovereign state. It is part of our basic democracy, and is a requirement of membership. But it does not, and has never, effectively filtered upwards to the top. There, debate takes place, but it is secret and unrecorded, a denial of the key principles offered by Declan Ganley: transparency, answerability, openness.

How it will work out is anyone's guess. So far, reaction has ranged from sceptical to negative. While Ganley has already asserted his capacities within Ireland to an impressive degree, translating this to the rest of Europe seems at best, in these very early stages, to represent a difficult future for him.

Ganley himself recognises this. He knows, moreover, that the kind of support he is looking for -- which has to depend on opposition to a massively powerful political structure -- will be hard to gear up. The European Union machine is against him. The European Parliament contains vehement critics of him because he is a direct threat. The media is unevenly divided. But his arguments are bold and attractive. They bring the people of Europe in, giving them a purpose and a direction in the exercise of their vote next summer. That is going to be a powerful force for change and reform.