Are EU deaf or what?

The author of a new EU Phrasebook, launched in Brussels today, analyses European leaders’ utter inability to understand the word ‘No’.

Josie Appleton

Topics World

Four times, European voters have said ‘No’ to European Union documents: in Ireland on 7 June 2001 (Nice Treaty); in France and Holland on 29 May and 1 June 2005 (European Constitution); and most recently in Ireland on 12 June 2008 (Lisbon Treaty). And all four times, European leaders responded by effectively saying: ‘No doesn’t really mean no.’

For most people, a vote is a question asked, and an answer received. Yet European and national politicians treated the ‘No’ votes not as answers, but as obstacles to be negotiated around. They deployed a variety of creative phrasing and reasoning to indicate why these votes did not really count, and how they could be avoided.

This week, on 11-12 December, EU leaders will meet to find what they call a ‘solution’ to the ‘Irish problem’ – that is, Irish voters’ rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a democratic vote in June. It looks likely that the Irish will be asked to vote again. To mark the occasion, the Manifesto Club has published the EU Phrasebook: 27 Ways to Say No Doesn’t Really Mean No – exposing all the different ways in which EU leaders have sought to avoid or neutralise ‘No’ votes – which we will launch at a meeting in Brussels tonight.

After each ‘No’ vote, political leaders said that people had not really rejected the treaty in question. ‘No in France and Holland does not mean no to the European Constitution’, said the European Green Party after France and Holland… well, voted ‘No’ to the European Constitution. ‘I want to make it absolutely clear that, in my view, the “No” vote should not be interpreted as a vote against enlargement’, said Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern after the Irish people rejected the Nice Treaty (which enabled enlargement) in a democratic referendum in 2001.

In every case, the rejection of the treaty only hardened leaders’ conviction that the treaty was necessary, and that they had been right to propose it and push it through. The problem was not the failure of their treaty, but of the electorate, which was apparently not sophisticated and grown-up enough to appreciate this elevated piece of political craftsmanship.

People had simply not understood what was at stake. The treaty in question had been too weighty and complicated for an electorate more accustomed to voting in the finals of The X Factor. ‘Many Europeans don’t understand how we are building Europe’, said French president Nicolas Sarkozy after the Irish ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty this year. A ‘triumph of ignorance’ was Lord Neil Kinnock’s response to the French and Dutch votes against the European Constitution in 2005.

Over the course of the four ‘No’ votes in recent years, European leaders became more assured about brushing the votes aside like an irritating fly. They became more visibly irritated with what they described as a ‘block’ to the ‘policymaking process’, or an ‘obstacle to the timetable’. The unflattering terms used to describe the electorate became less and less guarded – which culminated, after the Irish vote this year, in two separate Brussels officials describing the Irish people as outright ‘bastards’.

Over time, European leaders became more resolved not to expose treaties like this to the unpredictable and sullying world of public debate. ‘I believe that [referendums] are especially inappropriate when trying to deal with the intricacies of creating a treaty… Although a referendum might be appropriate for Pop Idol it is unsuitable for explaining a treaty’, said Chris Bryant MP in November 2003. After the Irish vote, Belgian MEP Jean-Luc Dehaene said: ‘Once again it has been shown that the formula of a referendum is not the right way to approve European treaties.’

At times, EU leaders have issued gloves-off threats to ensure they get their desired ‘Yes’ vote, as with German MEP Elmar Brok’s dark mention of ‘consequences for Ireland’ if there were another ‘No’. The transcript of the meeting between the presidents of the European Parliament and Czech president Václav Klaus shows the EU officials behaving like a band of heavies, ‘paying him a visit’ to warn him off associating with the Irish ‘No’ campaign. They fell short of threatening his family, but in all other respects it was pure Mafia tactics.

At other times, EU leaders have adopted the tone of an understanding primary school teacher, trying to be tolerant of her pupils’ mistakes. Vice-president of the EU Commission, Margot Wallström, favours this approach. She has said she is determined to ‘analyse’ the vote and discover voters’ concerns, to find out where they had gone so wrong. And then they would have a second try: Are you sure you want to say no? Why don’t you try again?

Whether in Mafioso or primary school mode, what is universally lacking is any respect for the electorate – any sense that votes mean something and should count. Any sense that, at base, leaders are answerable to the electorate, and not the other way around.

We published the phrasebook as an attempt to expose this insidious political logic. Looked at in black-and-white print, what is clear is political leaders’ complete incomprehension of the basic principles of democracy; the fact that an elitist self-justification has become absolute second nature to the operations of European politics, and they cannot see events other than in the terms of this elitism.

Perhaps the phrasebook will just pre-empt the phrases they will use in their meeting this week. Or perhaps it will embarrass some EU officials into the inkling that these ‘No’ votes were really answers, and not just obstacles.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, and author of EU Phrasebook: 27 Ways to Say No Doesn’t Really Mean No, published today and launched this evening at a debate in Brussels. To purchase or view a sample of the book, click here. For more information on tonight’s event, click here. Email Josie {encode=”[email protected]” title=”here”}.

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Topics World


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