Now it’s clear: the EU is an alien imposition in Europe

They have been libelled as an uneducated ‘horde’, yet Irish voters’ rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is a brilliant blow against the EU oligarchy.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Brexit Politics

Oligarchs cannot stand public humiliation. So when, last Thursday, the Irish electorate pointed their fingers and shouted ‘The Emperor has no clothes!’, the political elites of the European Union pretended that it was not them who stood exposed, but the Irish people.

EU officials, politicians and their friends in the media all read from the same carefully rehearsed script following the Irish electorate’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Adopting a kind of fantasy language, with all the hallmarks of classic Orwellian doublespeak, the EU and its representatives told the world that the ‘No’ vote did not really mean ‘No’, since Irish voters were thoroughly confused.

They argued that the vote lacked meaning or legitimacy because the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty – the name given to the rebranded EU Constitution – encompassed far too many different interest groups to be taken seriously. Apparently, a campaign that successfully brings together people from the far left to the Catholic right cannot be a genuine expression of popular will.

Once the results were announced, EU officials went straight into action, making it clear that the outcome of the Irish referendum would not be respected. Consider the breathtaking cynicism of the EU Commissioner Margaret Wallström. She told the BBC that we must ‘analyse’ the Irish result and then conduct a public survey to find out what was behind the ‘No’ vote. Taking on the role of a disinterested doctor or scientist, Wallström believes that ‘research’ can discover the source of the Irish disease; such ‘research’ will no doubt lead to the cobbling together of a diagnosis, and then a cure.

The rejection of the proposed EU Constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005 represented an important blow for freedom, and a challenge to the aloof, technocratic politics of the EU. However, even though Ireland is a small nation which lacks the economic and political influence of France or Holland, its ‘No’ vote was, in many respects, even more significant. Perhaps the most important contribution made by the Irish ‘No’ campaign has been to give some clarity to the disconnection between the electorate and the political class.

Voters and the political class do not only inhabit different worlds – they speak in different languages. Of course, the disconnection between the people of Europe and the institutions of the European Union has been evident for some time. Yet normally, this distance between voters and their rulers expressed itself in falling voter turnout and declining levels of participation in party political activity; surveys also showed that EU institutions lack legitimacy amongst the public, and that officialdom is out of touch with public sensibilities. The ‘No’ vote in Ireland, however, has revealed something far more important: that for a significant section of the public, elite EU institutions are not only illegitimate – they are an alien imposition.

It is rare indeed for the entire EU oligarchy and political class to join together with the media, the trade unions and the Catholic Church to take on the people. Even the poor old Pope got in on the act: he tried to provide some moral support to his mates in Brussels and Dublin in the run-up to the Irish referendum by giving a speech on the importance of the EU for countries like Ireland. This display of elite unity is probably unprecedented; such unity was not achieved during the referenda in Holland and France. During previous referendum campaigns, things were a lot more confusing; they lacked the clarity of what took place in Ireland, where the people were on one side and virtually all of their ‘representatives’ were on the other.

The cultural dissonance between the elite and the people was on full display during the Irish referendum. It’s worth noting that those media commentators who denounced the rag-tag army of ‘No’ voters happily overlooked the rag-tag army of elite interests behind the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Another striking thing about the Irish experience is how clearly – crystal clearly – it showed up the anti-democratic impulse behind the EU project. In previous times, the EU’s public relations machine had some success in confusing the debate, with its representatives suggesting that it was the opponents of the EU who were a threat to democracy. Officials and commentators frequently argued that ‘No’ campaigners in Holland and France were motivated by a base hatred of foreigners; their campaigning and their voting choices were denounced as ‘xenophobic’ and ‘anti-immigrant’.

The press frequently portrayed opposition to the EU Constitution as a revolt of the reactionary and the prejudiced against modern and enlightened institutions. One British newspaper described the Irish ‘No’ campaigners – all those ‘ultra-rightwing Catholics, neoliberals, pragmatic Eurosceptics, traditional nationalists and Trotskyists’ – as ‘not so much a rainbow alliance as a horde of Goths at the gates of Rome’ (1). Such a representation of recent events and votes in Europe has always been inaccurate; it has been a rather self-serving caricature of the electorate. Anti-immigrant and chauvinistic prejudice did motivate some of the individuals who have voted against the EU, but it has far from been the defining feature of the various ‘No’ campaigns of recent years.

Although a few people have tried it on, these tired old arguments about a revolt of the xenophobes against the enlightened EU cannot be credibly recycled in relation to the Irish referendum. There were simply no angry mobs of right-wing nationalists. So instead, EU propagandists were forced to fall back on explicit nineteenth-century style anti-mass arguments. Back in the nineteenth century, one of the arguments used by arrogant reactionaries against the expansion of the democratic franchise was that the people were too stupid to understand the complexities of parliamentary democracy. It was argued that people of low intelligence, who lacked refinement and good schooling, could not possibly be trusted to exercise any public duties judiciously.

More or less the same arguments were voiced during the Irish referendum campaign. Time and again, the EU and its supporters informed the world that the Irish electorate was thoroughly confused about the issues at stake, and that it was the strength of this ‘public ignorance’ that propelled the ‘No’ campaign. This vitriolic contempt for the people really exposed the reluctance of the ‘Yes’ campaign to acknowledge the poverty of its own ideas.

One of the most disturbing features of the EU’s propaganda before, during and after the Irish referendum was the systematic attempt to infantilise the opponents of the EU. The Irish were described as ‘ungracious’ and ‘truculent’, as school pupils who disobeyed their teachers; they were depicted as children who refused to show sufficient gratitude for all the presents they have received from the EU (see Ireland, you ungrateful wretch!, by Brendan O’Neill). The Irish were continually reminded that their recent prosperity has been founded on EU largesse.

The message is clear: the immature response of the Irish people to the Lisbon Treaty should not be taken seriously. This relentless attempt to infantilise an entire people is an alarming historical moment. The reprimand of a naughty child always hints at future punishment. Will the EU do more than simply threaten to take the Irish children’s toys away? Let’s keep a very close eye on what the EU does next.

Frank Furedi is author most recently of Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.

(1) Unloved, thrice rejected, Guardian, 14 June 2008

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Topics Brexit Politics

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