Bruce Arnold

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

It is Europe that is confused about treaty -- not the Irish

IT is Europe that is in confusion about Ireland's referendum decision on the Lisbon Treaty. The European Union does not know how to proceed. For this reason it is putting an entirely undemocratic obligation on the Irish people to think again. The Irish people will not think again, but this reality is taking time to sink in.

It seems to be taking more time with Nicolas Sarkozy than with others, an indication of the odd and eccentric way in which the European system of governance works, transferring enormous power and authority to a man who is ill-informed about the circumstances that prevail in other countries and therefore seeks to apply the judgments and protocols of his own nation into the additional limelight of Europe's presidency.

He arrives on Monday having irritated everyone after promising, first, a public debate with the perceived 'No' vote representatives, then changing the programme to embassy drinks. This piece of arrant nonsense has become embarrassing, worsened by the suggestion from the French Embassy that Alan Dukes will chair the encounter alongside Maurice Hayes. What about Patricia McKenna as well?

Behind the French president is a Europe in confusion about Ireland, and trying to confine that confusion to a concept of this country as willful, arbitrary and absurd. As with Nicolas Sarkozy, the onus for change is placed on us. Privately, secretly, some changes by Europe are being envisaged, but they have no rationale and no democratic justification.

The referendum debate made absolutely clear the rigidity of Europe's position, and it was, and is, this firmness on Europe's part, that has helped to produce a parallel firmness in Ireland. It was this that clearly and emphatically rejected the Lisbon Treaty. Now Europe is going soft, as it has done in Poland, with undemocratic appeasement and deal-making.

The very idea that Ireland's 'No' position -- adopted by 850,000 Irish men and women -- can be effectively parsed and analysed, is a further absurdity. There are far bigger issues here that created the opposition to the Lisbon Treaty than the high-profile minority groups. Understandably, they have claimed credit. Yet to many 'No' voters they were an embarrassment: this did not, however, stop a powerful and natural reaction against the Lisbon Treaty.

The unreadable European Constitution was an insult. It was offered by its protagonists in an inept way. It came from a bureaucratic organisation that, despite the enormous good it has achieved, is rightly in profound confusion about itself and its own democratic standards. The EU is a hugely beneficial development in the modern world. It has achieved great advantages for everyone. Ireland has probably benefited more than any other country among the 27 member states. For a totalitarian regime it is essentially good. It values human rights, it endorses democracy in all the member-countries, its laws are generally good, and its judicial and parliamentary structures are admirable, as far as they go.

While I have consistently opposed the Lisbon Treaty and all it stands for, I support the EU and want to see Ireland's continued participation in its work and objectives. I think most 'No' voters feel the same. The trouble is, Europe has gone wrong about the central issue of its own governing structures. It is not democratic in the way that it insists member countries should be democratic. And this deficit is steadily widening, the Lisbon Treaty being the most startling example of this.

Throughout its development it has worked on the premise that "the Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law". These are common to the member states. They were most recently laid down in the Copenhagen criteria of June 1993. These are the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the EU. They require that states have the institutions to preserve democratic governance and human rights, have a functioning market economy, and accept the obligations and intent of the EU. Most, but not all of these criteria are followed by the EU. Unfortunately, the EU has a problem about the ultimate exercise of power, and this is probably the most significant deficit, affecting all of us, and, in the end, being the single most important issue in the referendum vote last month.

Specifically, the EU imposes on member states "a functional democratic governance". This requires that citizens should be free to participate, on an equal basis, in political decision-making at every level, from local government to national parliament. This covers free elections with secret ballot; the right to establish political parties without any hindrance from the state; fair and equal access to a free press; free trade union organisations; freedom of personal opinion; and "executive powers restricted by laws and allowing free access to judges independent of the executive".

Well and good. We have these things, so do other members. But the EU does not have a parallel set of criteria. They are not contained in the Lisbon Treaty. There is no simple constitution, no European system of democracy giving participation at all levels. Only out of such political criteria would there develop all-European political parties, unions, press coverage and the involvement of all people in the way they are governed.

We are invited to admire Europe's management of our affairs but the process is too complex for our full participation. We have been distanced from our democratic rights and duties by the treaty and it has been rejected on those grounds by Irish voters who won their freedom with difficulty and sacrifice and want to go on having a say in how those freedoms are developed.

FOR this principal reason the 'No' vote will be sustained in the future and the 'Yes' campaign will only change things if the democratic requirements, which all member states have to fulfill, produces a parallel development within the EU. Nicolas Sarkozy cannot offer anything like this, so why is he coming here?