Tuesday, 24 June 2008
When I was much younger, I occasionally took part in Reclaim the Night marches. One of the favourite chants was "However we dress, wherever we go,/ Yes means yes and no means no." It was a simple message but objectors frequently assured me that life wasn't as simple as that because women didn't actually say what they meant. Some added that women didn't know what they wanted anyway. At the extreme end of the anti-feminist brigade were the men who would declare that women liked being raped and that Reclaim the Night marchers were angry and soured because they hadn't been.
I've been reminded of those attitudes by some of the responses to the result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty. As the politicans campaigned and debates took place, almost everyone assumed the Irish would vote Yes to the new Treaty. It was only on the eve of poll that I noted a little doubt in the commentators' voices. Then the Irish voted No. The majority was between 7 and 8 %. so there wasn't any room for doubt. Or so I thought.
Suddenly there was a string of European spokesmen (and all but one I heard were men) talking on TV and radio and to any journalists who would listen, explaining that no didn't really mean no but something else entirely. "It's not about Europe or the Lisbon treaty," one French speaker explained. "It's about the voters' attitude to the Irish government." He went on to explain that the result could therefore be disregarded or, if necessary, the Irish people could be asked to vote again and again - until they got it "right."
I don't know why the Irish people voted as they did, although they seem to have had access to a great range of relevant information, including the text of the Treaty. But their reasons for voting No don't matter. If, in an election, I chose to vote for a member of the Monster Raving Loony Party because he used my favourite brand of toothpaste, my motivation might be regarded as strange. But no-one would have the right to take my vote and re-assign it to the Green Party candidate on the grounds that the Green Party had more sensible policies. As long as I am eligible to vote, my vote should be counted. And it's not for anyone else to re-assign my vote on the grounds that I should have voted in a different way.
The Irish referendum can have only one result. The Lisbon Treaty cannot be adopted. The current rules of the European Community require all member states to endorse major changes. The Irish constitution as interpreted by the highest courts in Ireland declares that such major changes to national sovereignty can be decided only in a referendum. Spokesmen can condemn the Irish people as stupid and ungrateful (I have heard such epithets) but the pro-Europeans who use such terms betray the best ideals of the European Union. If it is to succeed, the European Union must respect the views of all nations involved. It mustn't become a community of bullies and it certainly mustn't ignore legal and democratic requirements.
Pro-Europeans should be encouraging a proper debate on what Europe is for and how it is run. A British referendum would have provided a good opportunity to explore all manner of anxieties, from the question of sovereignty to anxieties about fraudulent use of expenses. But although Britain was promised a referendum on the constitution, we were assured none was necessary for the Lisbon Treaty. Sometimes being a British voter feels like being a woman in Britain before women got the vote. I could almost hear government spokesmen saying, "Don't bother your pretty little head about that, my dear."
There are big issues to discuss about Europe and everyone should be encouraged to think them through. When the constitution was debated - and rejected in France and the Netherlands - I learnt about issues that weren't discussed in the British press, so far as I could see. There were debates on the possible effects of a free market in Labour - would it kill off the minimum wage? And questions were raised about the role of the European Central Bank, which was to have the status of a nation and a right of veto over legislation.
Being pro-European isn't a coherent political position on its own. Pro-Europeans have to say what kind of Europe they support, how it will be achieved and how the dangers of a united Europe can be avoided. A united Europe may be dangerous. While it could have the strength to stand up to other super-powers, world super-powers have often been a force for bad.
For a few days it seemed as though the Irish vote might be disregarded or that Ireland would be sidelined by other countries. Then the Czech president said that the Irish vote must be respected and the Treaty could not be ratified.
I don't know what happens next. But a sensible, thoughtful and well-informed debate on Europe is overdue. If we need a new Treaty or Constitution, we'd better all think and vote on it - and accept what the voters in each nation say, even if we don't agree.
Note: Computer problems and lack of time prevented me assembling the range of links I would have liked for this post.