May 21, 2008
This column was written prior to Dustin’s tragic and premature exit from the Eurovision song contest.
If you want to understand the Lisbon Treaty, forget all the political broadcasts, the party leaflets, the grave statements about the future of Europe and sit down on Saturday night to watch the Eurovision.
When the garish, ‘over-the-top’ hooker chic of some of our new eastern neighbours cavorts on your screens this Saturday night, take a long look because this is one possible future for Europe.
Ireland’s fall from Eurovision grace is geo-political. When we were the poor cousins, stroking billions of euros from the Brussels slush fund, we couldn’t help winning the Eurovision. We got the sympathy vote as well as taking the thing seriously.
In economic terms, the correlation between structural funds and Eurovision crowns was unambiguous. We were flavour of the month and our Eurovision success was a reflection of this. (Granted, a drier economist might dispute cause and effect but bear with me here!)
Now that the axis of the EU has swivelled to the East, so too has the Eurovision. In the old days, before the Wall came down, the Eurovision used to be more or less a small west European club plus, bizarrely, Israel.
Over the past few years, the eastern European countries joined up, which has created problems for the traditional ‘douze points’ voting system.
With so many new countries and people and voters, the Eurovision had to change its voting system or the event would have taken all night to get through.
As a result, the great Eurovision gurus came up with the idea of a semi-final to make the thing less unwieldy.
Evidently, those which lose out are the original countries that used to be a shoo-in to the final, and those which profit are the new countries that were never in the Eurovision in the first place.
Without these new countries, the douze points status quo would have remained in place and Ireland’s chance of winning would have been one in 12 rather than one in 22 or 32.
The Lisbon Treaty is just the same. It is a change to the voting system because Europe has become so big. To make the Union work, the rules have to be changed and there will be winners and losers in this new arrangement.
As they say, to make an omelette you have got to crack some eggs.
Those on the ‘Yes’ side, who suggest nothing has changed, are challenging the obvious. Of course things have changed. In the same way as the new Eurovision rules mean that Ireland and Dustin have to get through the semi-finals for a crack at the prize on Saturday, the Lisbon Treaty means that Ireland’s representation at the top table is no longer guaranteed.
For example, we will lose a permanent Commissioner. Like the new Eurovision rules, the Lisbon Treaty means that we will have more hoops to jump through with less help.
The easiest way to regard the Lisbon Treaty, therefore, is through the prism of the Eurovision voting procedure. We are not being asked to vote on the make up of Europe, we are being asked to vote on the technical merits of the new voting system.
Taking the Eurovision analogy a little further, we are not being asked to cast a deciding vote on the outcome of the competition; all that is being sought is our opinion on whether the idea of a semi-final process is fair.
We are therefore being asked to rubberstamp a procedure which reduces our chances of securing a winning outcome but gives new countries a fairer crack of the whip.
So Ireland is being asked to put itself second. This is a bit like asking Dustin whether he would have preferred to go straight to the final on Saturday, rather than go through the extra vetting process of last night’s semi-final.
The ‘No’ camp is predicting all sorts of calamities if we vote for the Lisbon Treaty but, in economic terms, like the Eurovision, if the quality of our economy/entry is strong we should have nothing to worry about.
However, the story does not end there. The ‘No’ campaign wants to highlight the very fundamental changes which have occurred in the EU while the ‘Yes’ side prefers to downplay them.
If we scroll down a little bit from the Lisbon Treaty, we see that the voting rules are changing because the EU entity has altered dramatically.
Like the changed Eurovision, there can be little doubt that the EU has been transformed by the inclusion of 70 million Slavs over the past 10 years.
In the next 10 years — with the likely entry of Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia — the EU will become even more Slavic.
In the same way as these countries vote for each other at the Eurovision, due to old loyalties and shared cultural views about what constitutes a good song, the policies of the EU will change over time to reflect their preferences and this new demographic reality.
Every expansion of the EU changes the Union. For example, many years ago, in the late 1980s, I studied at the College of Europe, a partisan pro-European university in Bruges.
Back then, Europe was a French project and the antipathy towards, and from, Britain was palpable.
As I listened to Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech, it became obvious that while British anti-European sentiment was certainly over the top, there was precious little effort from the continental side to understand the Little Englanders.
But this has changed — both for internal British reasons and for composite EU reasons.
In 1992, the EU expanded to include Sweden and Finland. Very soon they made their mark. Rapprochement with Britain developed and a much more pro-globalisation and pragmatic approach to trade, taxes and finance followed.
Today, Ireland’s biggest allies in the EU on economic matters are the Scandinavians and the British, while our old friends the Germans and French are constantly questioning the bona fides of our corporate tax regime.
We are much more likely to have a meeting of minds with blonde countries than many others. We might genuflect at Easter Mass with the Catholic Portuguese but we vote with the Lutheran Swedes.
As the EU continues to expand into the East and the Balkans over the coming years, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, like the Scandinavians, the Slavic countries will exercise an influence on the Union.
At the moment, it is difficult to predict where this might take the EU.
If the Eurovision is anything to go by, we can be sure that Ireland’s influence will wane as the EU expands.
Can we do anything about it?
Hardly; although sending turkeys to represent us — when we get the chance — might not be the best option.