At 9.20am on a Friday back in June 2008, just 20 minutes after vote counting had begun, it began to dawn on us that we might win the referendum. For the next several hours, as counting continued, we gradually got used to the idea of victory. That evening the Irish prime minister announced to a shocked political class
and incensed EU leaders that Ireland had voted against the Lisbon Treaty.
In terms of the rules, which required ratification by all member states, this meant the treaty — and with it, the new Constitution for Europe — had to be abandoned.
The media and establishment responded in much the same way as they have done in the past two weeks. Just as the 17m Brexiters have been dismissed as rabid racists who want nothing to do with progress or integration, Ireland’s “No” camp were vilified as rabid, small-minded Catholics who wanted to retreat into the past and be controlled by the Vatican, not Brussels. And of course the “No” camp was also dominated by sinister old people living outside the cities.
In the three months I spent campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty I met no-one who fitted the media stereotype of the “No” voters. I have no doubt some matched the description. But the vast majority were ordinary people concerned about Brussels’ power grab.
It somehow seems much easier to vilify people when they can be wrapped into some easy-to-hate stereotype. That way you don’t even have to consider addressing their concerns.
In 2005 the French and the Dutch voted against an earlier version of the Constitution. The project was abandoned, briefly. After a period of reflection and some minor tinkering, it re-emerged as the Lisbon Treaty and only the Irish had a vote.
By 2008 the EU bureaucrats obviously reckoned they’d done enough reflecting and this time decided the easier solution was to get the Irish to vote again.
In October 2009, after tweaks to the treaty and threats of marginalisation or expulsion from the EU, the Irish (by now terrified of being left alone, Iceland-like, to deal with the financial crisis) voted the way they were expected to. It was a shocking assault on democracy, choreographed by Brussels.
It’s difficult to imagine how the same tactics could be tried on the British but already the Brussels politicians are talking about devising ways of ensuring Britain learns a lesson from Brexit. This attitude may win it friends in some of the other 27 member states and may help to give the impression of a truly united Europe.
Chances are it won’t. As successive opinion polls (and referendums) across the EU reveal, European unity may be a splendid idea but, after hundreds of years, the notion of nation-states cannot be made to disappear just because the cosmopolitan establishment deems it to be nasty and small-minded.
While the future of the UK is dominating headlines, the longer-term question is how long will it be before the EU starts to unravel noticeably. It will unravel not because of the UK’s exit but because EU citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry at the remoteness of their EU leaders. They will become less inclined to believe in the goodness of remote bureaucrats beyond their control. People have enough difficulty with “local” politicians over whom they believe they have some control.
Ironically, the biggest damage ever suffered by the EU project was caused by its mean-spirited response to the global financial crisis, which began in 2008, and the immigration crisis, which began in 2014. In both cases there was no sense of shared fate, of a community working together. It was every nation-state for itself with the most powerful prevailing.
If the EU is to survive, it must behave like a true union, which means its leaders must learn to listen to the concerns of even the “No” voters and the Brexiters and not dismiss them as small-minded nationalists.