Bruce Arnold

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


The Lisbon Treaty is a constitutional document. It establishes a new federal state of Europe. It makes us citizens of that state with dual loyalties. There are variations in the degree to which we accept and implement some of those loyalties, but in effect we are drawn into a new citizenship status that undoubtedly compromises and changes our present citizenship of Ireland.

That historic Irish citizenship has many parallels with the historical evolution of democracy. Like the United States, we were ruled and exploited by Britain. Unlike the United States, it took us 150 years more than it took the American people to break free.

The Americans fought the War of Independence on a relatively simple but fundamental issue: no taxation without representation. They wanted to govern themselves as an independent people and they did. And what they did was itself governed by a principle of democracy that has worked to this day.

It is founded in a model Constitution and is expressed through a legislature elected by the people. It is through the American people that laws are made and changed. They do it through Congress at the federal level, and they do it through separate legislatures at state level.

We have seen a bad president by-passing and misusing this system and we have watched the extraordinary party system working over many months to replace him and to decide with whom. But in the end it is a model form of democratic politics, rightly the admiration of other federations as it should be of Europe. This is a powerful and worthwhile democracy whose examples are worth following because we believe in them and have tried, throughout the lifetime of the State to actually follow them.

The European Union is going in an entirely different way the heart of which is that it is not democratic. We do not elect any law-making bodies. We do elect a parliament, but it is marginal, not central. It does not initiate or shape the main laws governing us. We are therefore throwing out the first principle, no taxation without representation.

Because of this, we have no direct say, through an elected representative, in how we are governed; we have an indirect say, through the national parliament and through the European Parliament, but this involvement is being so seriously reduced as to appear puerile. It seems that the parliamentarians – at least, the Irish ones with notable exceptions – welcome this. They want the gravy but they don’t want the train.

The American people gave themselves a Constitution that was open, protective of them and their society, amendable, flexible and inspiring. They are justly proud of it and other peoples have used it, as indeed they have used our Constitution, to frame their freedoms.

The European Union Constitution dare not speak its name. It has been put into denial by those who framed its camouflaged equivalent – the Lisbon Treaty. And it is being introduced in a subversive and shameful way. There is a deep democratic deficit in the failure to link up the constitutional act every man and woman in this country will make if he or she votes Yes, with the undemocratic instruments that will then become the main power within the European Union.

This failure is endorsed, quite wrongly, by the omissions from the Referendum Commission’s website and its booklet. The Commission does not tell the full story of the fundamental constitutional change that is being made in our lives and in our rights, taking them outside the essential democratic controls. It does not highlight and explain the key issues that are contained in the actual amendment to the Constitution we are being invited to support. It does not publish the Constitutional Amendment in the booklet nor does it analyze it properly anywhere. The Commission therefore does not examine this democratic deficit.

It is the most important issue facing us, and yet, like the householder faced with an elephant in his drawing room, we look the other way.

At the age of nineteen I read what became the most influential book to shape my views on politics and freedom. It has been much on my mind during the ongoing debate about the Lisbon Treaty, the future of Europe and the decision about ourselves we are being asked to make. The book, by Hannah Arendt, called The Origins of Totalitarianism – also entitled The Burden of Our Times – was controversial in drawing together Stalinist Communism and Nazism. Both were totalitarian regimes, horrific ones, and her book was designed to teach the world about this. Europe, broadly speaking, emerged from that lesson.

But did it wholly emerge? Put simply, totalitarianism is a form of government that includes control of everything under one authority, and allows no opposition.

In the Lisbon Treaty we are being asked to transfer power to one collective authority. We do not elect it. There is no opposition to it. It is parcelled out into sections which contribute to law-making, but the real power is under the titular control of ministers and national leaders to whom bureaucrats submit ideas for legislation and then draft the legislation. Our only protection against this is our own sovereignty, wisely used.

Europe’s alternative has been in existence for decades and we are used to living with it and accepting its bounty. It has shaped our lives and comparing it with other totalitarian regimes in history may seem extreme. Indeed, it is extreme. But in terms of the actual operation of democratic power – which we sought for 300 years and have used, with indifferent success, for less than a century – what we are now seeking to endorse and become part of is an uncomfortable departure from all of this. It also fits uncomfortably the definition given above.

This has been the case before the Lisbon Treaty and democratically Ireland has been able to shape its relationship and has done so with remarkable success. But, for reasons I cannot accept, we are changing that constitutional independence for an entirely different constitutional relationship that is binding, gives us dual citizenship with a reduced and compromised democratic mandate and does it irrreversibly and for ever.

Hannah Arendt devoted much of her life’s work to affirming a conception of freedom synonymous with collective political action among equals. That key word, ‘equals’, is smiled on by those who will be in power in future, in Europe. And I do not like the smile. And I do not trust the reassurances. They conceal far too much.