May 21, 2008

What Dustin teaches us about the Lisbon Treaty

Posted in Euro · 21 comments ·

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.

  1. Ger Kennedy

    There is a drier economist than you? :-)

  2. Philip

    As someone very wisely pointed out to me the other day….we need their babies.

  3. coldblow

    I’m not sure that neighbouring countries vote for each other in Eurovision. I know that there was a good bit of this under the old jury system but it’s worse now and I reckon it’s due to people, presumably young people, voting for their own country, be they expats or whatever, or because its their parents’ nationality. It will be interesting to see how many countries sing in English again this year and whether the French will again be in a sulk over it. I think last night’s unfortunate events demonstrate yet again that continentals don’t get humour I remember trying out a joke from a Peter Cook sketch on various Swedes when I was visiting in the early 80s:

    - Did you know the whale isn’t a fish?
    - Yes. It’s a ma…
    - It’s an insect!
    - You are a stupid person!

    This was so funny I just couldn’t stop myself.

  4. Garry

    In the Eurovision there is one winner and the rest are losers; whereas in the EU the decision making processes are not designed to pick just one winner. Granted there will nearly always be winners and losers from those decisions ==> countries horse trade… we were willing to sacrifice fisheries for agriculture…. Having many allies will be even more important in the new EU and the new countries will certainly make a serious impact. If voting trends cross over from music; they will be in a strong position. But so with net contribuitors.

    “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.”

    The thing is, a winning song would have been selected, you can predict exactly how much extra time the show would have taken as new countries/songs were added to the Eurovision it scales linerarly… 2x the number of countries = 2x number of hours in the show…. With the EU and with everyone having a veto, the existing decision making processes dont scale linerarly, they scale exponentially… 2x number of countries == ? more time.

    Dusin wouldn’t have fared any better if the old rules were left in place, an old act believing its own publicity, and in common with the some of us newly “rich” Irish, confusing arrogance and insulting behaviour with ‘Irish charm’.

  5. Jonnie

    “Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly” … “All the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way.”

    This quote just freaks me out. It is ascribed to V. GISCARD D’ESTAING Chairman of the European Convention. This is a very sinister comment and one that should make all Irish and Europeans consider how much say they will have in their own destiny and that of their children. These same enlightened Econocrats have presided over policies and regulation which almost resulted in the collapse of the global financial system not so long ago. The same lack of transparency and complexity is applied here to the wording of the treaty, as was applied to the sub prime derivatives. Interestingly no substantial explanation of its contents has been attempted by those who profess to know so much. Perhaps the emperor really has no clothes this time. Paddy needs to give it a touch of the handbrake as our European cousins don’t seem to deserve a democratic opinion on this. Very telling, considering it is supposed to be so good for European Democracy. Never underestimate the blind delusions of crowds, “any one want to buy a pig, he’s just outside in a lovely poke I made for him, I can post him!!. He is in a Bull market, ironically enough.

  6. Frank Byrne

    I was delighted to see this piece in the newspaper today. I am opposed to the Lisbon Treaty, but feel no sense of common-purpose with many of what I see as the ‘loony left’ (and in Youth Defences case, Loony Right!) who also oppose it.

    However I feel Libertas, through Declan Ganley and Ulick McEvaddy- have made very strong arguments about the dangers posed by this Treaty to our interests. I found myself agreeing with parts of what Gay Byrne said too. I am not buying the idea of threatened neutrality, but when it comes to our economic interests- there is no way Lisbon is good for Ireland.

    Lets be good Europeans, like the French even- and vote no.

  7. Ciaran

    Good article, I did fine one piece of information (Irish Times, Fri 16 May, Anthony Coughlan) about the proposed change to the constitution. I bet most people don’t know about this regardless of whether you’re in favour or against the Treaty:

    The second sentence of the Constitutional Amendment would give the constitution of the post-Lisbon Union supremacy over the Irish Constitution:-

    “No provision of this [Irish] Constitution invalidates laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the State that are necessitated by membership of the European Union referred to Å  or prevents laws enacted, acts done or measures adopted by the said European Union or by institutions thereof, or by bodies competent under the treaties referred to in this section, from having the force of law in the State.”

    and apparently it will be possible to amend EU law in future without a referendum.

    Whatever your view about the Lisbon Treaty fine, and great if you understand it, but changing the Constitution to make it subject to EU law is a major change to make. Why this has to be done to ratify the Treaty is beyond me.


  8. Johnny Dunne

    “Can we do anything about it?”

    Maybe ‘the media’ can generate ‘real’ interest and debate in the few weeks left to the Lisbon Treaty vote on what the various possible scenarios /options for the Irish economy as part of a ‘new’ EU ? Politicians are looking in the ‘rear view mirror’, like those who feel we are ‘entitled’ to compete in the Eurovision finals. The debate is focused on ‘words’ in an agreement few will read, so many will not vote !

  9. Jonathan

    The combination of the re-jig in voting which is bad for Ireland but more fair and the self ammendment aspect of the treaty have put it the nail in the coffin for me. One I could take but not the two.
    Definite NO!!!

  10. Observer

    Hey David!

    Very good article and a great comparison to reflect the changes in europe (From an EU and Eurovision Perspective) over the last decade!

    They ruined Eurovision! They introduced “Heats” for qualifying……. surely eveyone whose nation is in europe (Unlike Israel and Turkey!) should have an equal right at performing? Italy threw in the towel a decade ago and hasn’t competed since ……. real shame I loved seeing the traditional Raven haired Italy Beauty singing.

    If more states were entering they should’ve just lengthen the contest by another day, (It would’ve been fun!)

    The same is now with the EU, they’ve become overbloated and I’m sick and tired of Brussels/Arrogant Gobdaws like José Manuel Barrasso determining what is best for our future. Belgium Still might split in two (What would happen then to the EU?) as it almost did last year

    The EU has brought some good things: There should be a universal Health & Safety Directive across all of europe, I’m glad there are no such things as Tarriffs and Visa’s anymore to purchase etc.

    However, the free movement of people brought about by Nice and Maastricht is ruining all of the member’s states culture and National Identities …….. It’s time we said Enough!

  11. Philip

    Guys, I think there’s a lot of needless panic about Europe. It’s getting bigger and presents more threats and opportunities. Ho Hum. Get with the plan I say.

    That said, the need for a Lisbon treaty is a complete mystery to me. The Commission and its technocrats could not organise a pee’up in a brewery and they’ll make an even bigger mess of it when they “think” they have greater control. They are utterly disorganised. If anything I think it’ll cause a breakup becasue the incompetence will extend to centralising control of other state instruments and the public service will become less responsive,more useless and dangerous. Furthermore, I can never see a situation where the likes of Russia and China etc will ever deal with Europe in preference to Germany, UK, France etc independently. It simply will not happen…certainly not for energy or food etc.

    Vote No to preserve European Diversity and resilience and end this nonsense and get back to business. Maybe we should reconsider in 3008.

  12. Deco

    The Lisboa Treaty is more complex than Dustin’s personality. At over 10000 pages it leaves a lot open to interpretation. Calling it a Constitution created a massive sense of responsibility amongst voters in France and the Netherlands. And this resulted in them voting it out.
    The next move was to ‘relabel’ it as just another Treaty on Europe, and pass it through the national Parlaiments. That was no problem, because the politicians who represented their countries would be default push it through each national parlaiment. Only one problem, the judgement in Ireland made as a result of the Crotty case.

    I do not think any of the politicians, or know it alls who are telling me to vote for Lisboa have even read the document once. For me this is an amazing level of hypocrisy. The political parties have slogans, catch phrases, and glitzy posters lined up and this is all pretty predictable really. Dick Roche, the Minister responsible for this project seems to think that anybody who questions the merit of this Treaty is ‘an extremist’ – this sounds pretty much like his argument in favour of the M3 motorway – the tree huggers were ‘extremists’. So we are supposed to trust a politician with a serious integrity problem, and no respect for the national heritage or the natural environment on an issue of even greater and wider importance ? No this is not enough.

    If Europe continues on it’s business as per the current arrangement, then this will suit me fine. But a coalition of left wing politicians in Germany, France and Spain can scupper Ireland’s tax independence and leave us out in the cold. Of course this will happen at what could best be called the route of ‘diluted democracy’, via commisioners appointed by national governments. Now we have seen how Irish governments appoint European Commisioners. Do we want other commisioners, who are appointed in a similar manner to make decisions for Ireland, without any direct mandate from the people ??? The most obvious answer to this is the EU trade commisioner, Peter Mandelson, who has no support at all from the EU population, and is regarded as a sinister being, within his own country – especially it would seem in his own country.

    Europe is getting far to centralized. The principle of subsidiarity was introduced to the Treaty of Maastricht, and it was left on the shelf. It was supposed to ensure that government would be positioned at the lowest economic level possible in the European hierarchy. This was to ensure decentralization of decision making. However the provisions of the Lisboa Treaty make the principle of subsidiarity effectively overwritten. The power of decision making will be profoundly affected within the European system, as a result of Lisboa. And none of the politicians who are in favour of Lisboa, are prepared to contemplate any discussion concerning loss of sovereignty. IBEC is in favour of it because it will keep the grants gravy flowing. The liberal institutional left (Labour, ICTU, those with well paid public sector jobs) think that they will get favoruable (bureacratic) policies implemented from Brussels in a manner that suits their agenda. Fine Gael think the centre right agenda will advanced in the same manner courtesy of their Big Brother (The CDU party in Germany). It seems to be a bizarre coalition of interests who assume they have something to gain.

    But really we need to ignore all these agendas, and ask as citizens ‘ will Lisboa improve anything, will it make us all (Irish voters, plus voters from other EU countries who are circumvented by this process) ??? Personally I don’t think so.

    Therefore I am sending it back, for rationalization, simplification, and reduction. And next time around it should be voted by the population of each country, not by national parlaiments. Remember in 1799, the Irish Parlaiment was overwhelmingly in favour of tighter connections with WestMinister. And we all remember where that got everybody !!!!

  13. geoff dickson

    From what I understand, the Lisbon treaty, if ratified, means an end to Ireland as a nation because the EU Constitution overrides the Irish one, making it irrelevant.
    Also, the unelected and unaccountable EU Council / Commission can extend their powers without a referendum. I cant believe the heads of state agreed to this.
    If for example, corporate tax is unified across the EU, the effect of business in Ireland will be felt.
    And the EU auditors have not signed off the last 10 years accounts!!
    The decision making process is NOT democratic at all, with the Parliament being a toothless tiger unable to make new laws, and Ireland also loses a Commissioner for 5 years out of every 15 years.
    Having only 13MEP’s out of 785 does not give Ireland much power.
    This looks like another USSR in the making! Vote NO on June 12th.

  14. coldblow

    I always voted No before, for lots of reasons (many of them already mentioned here), but I’m no longer so sure. It’s harder now to put the case for Europe than it ever was as the constant compromise and horsetrading over the years between member states conflicting philophies within them has muddied the water (hence subsidiarity and all the rest). It could be boiled down to an attempt to strike the right balance between self-interest and idealism. Or between the interest of each member state and the common good. Or even between everybody’s perceived self interest in the short term and their long term interests.

    Looking at the wider picture Europe has a role to play in promoting democracy and (genuine) liberal and humanitarian values at a time when these are increasingly threatened, in providing a viable alternative to the discredited US-dominated economic order and in standing up for cooperation at a time when there will surely be pressure on nation states to revert to beggar-my-neighbour protectionism. And this isn’t mere abstract idealism as (unless it’s a superpower) a modern state no longer has any real economic sovereignty – eg its currency and exchange rate would be susceptible to attack on a hugely powerful international market (as happened to France and Britain in recent decades).

    So I don’t know if we should be so pleased over the long term that the Scandinavians and the British support our own particular economic model, even if it seems to have worked in recent years. The super-corporations need to be put under control, not bribed. To date European integration has largely consisted in removing trade obstacles (ie negative integration) which has benefitted big business and the corporations. As I understand the case for Europe (and I’m far from sure that I do) the ordinary citizen’s interests would be better served by positive integration along with strengthening the parliament and institutions. But nobody wants to make the case openly for fear that the whole project be shot down in flames.

    Lisbon would appear to be a modest step in this general direction. So, if this what it’s about, is this what we want and can it be made to work in an expanded Union? Or would we be wiser to to see it all as no more than horsetrading by the bigger states to keep control? And then again, how would we feel if the multinationals waved us goodbye if we had to regularize our corporation taz? (Or are they going anyway…?)

  15. Stephen Kenny

    The whole point of different countries having separate currencies, and there being variable exchange rates, is to describe, and therefore facilitate, accurate and fair trading of goods and services. Trying to link two currencies is simply a contradiction. The UK’s efforts to stay “in the EMU”, was, quite literally, asking for trouble, as everyone knew that the UK economy was in relative trouble. However much bankers and traders puff themselves up, they are only really money shufflers, and they can’t fight a general economic trend, except in the very short term.
    The Europe question, to my mind, is political. Forget the economic arguments, they are raised by the Yes camp, and the No camp, as a diversionary scare tactic. In my view, integration, once started will move forward until it achieves some sort of equilibrium, stop for a while, then embark on another step. The unit of change seems to be quite large, since it includes all areas of our lives.
    The question I suppose is, how much do you want Ireland to stay Irish? Is it even possible, let alone desirable, in this day and age, to maintain a cultural identity? It’s not, I think, something easily discussed, since it is inherently prone to racist and ‘culturalist’ language. That’s a bit obvious really, since deciding that I prefer my culture to someone else’s IS saying that mine suits me better than theirs does, and so I prefer me and mine, to them and theirs, so I believe mine is better than theirs, so theirs is worse than mine.
    To keep a separate identity, without a distinct language, is a political choice, and if it is desirable, and to be achieved at all, then economic/social/political integration must stop at some point. Is that point now? I guess that’s the question.

  16. roisin

    this is a very scary website

    socialism is not my idea of culture

  17. MK

    Hi again David,

    The EU, like the Eurovision, has problems, challenges and opportunities for Ireland, but there is ‘analogy breakdown’ when discussing both in the same breath.

    The Lisbon Treaty is Ireland’s current challenge/opportunity. Irish people have an increased level of importance with this vote because it is the only country where the people get a chance to vote Yes or No. One of the most recent polls is showing a 55%-Yes 45%-No split, which is far different than the 96%-yes and 4%-no that our so-called parliamentary “representatives” have in mind. As can been seen, yet another case of Democratic Deficit in our political system. Yet ironically a yes vote will likely lead to a greater democratic deficit.

    But one thing is for sure, its a bit like getting turkey’s like Dustin to vote for Xmas, except that the turkey’s in our case do not really know what they are voting for. Well, real turkey’s cant read! The changes proposed for the EU system with the Lisbon Reform Treaty are in some cases subtle and hidden, a mere ambiguous sentence or two, yet could have major long-term effects, eg: if self-changing will be ‘allowed’ (some argue that the French language version is different than the english-language version, etc, and allows 80-20 overrules for the ‘greater good’.) and it may all come down to the EU courts to decide where and for what a veto can actually be used and if when the hold-up is 2 years (as outlined) it can be over-ridden or not. The Irish government is regularly brought up before the EU courts for not enacting EU regulations and directives, its not as if we are ‘best in the class’ as it is (eg: water charges, environment, waste, carbon emissions, etc, etc).

    Will it be better for Ireland’s economy long-term if the Lisbon Treaty is carried, or is there any discernible difference between what we have currently and what we may have if Lisbon is passed? Well, who knows, as even economists cant predict the future in 6 months never mind in 6 years (although Brian Cowen is of the opinion that he can as he is calling a Yes vote better for Ireland’s economy.).

    I think what is needed is a better EU under the current conditions, a better execution of the current system. The EU monies are shrouded in secrecy as it is. That should be cleared up. How can people vote on changing a system when the current system is not implemented to the letter as it is? And when there are a myriad of problems with the current system that wont be addressed by the Lisbon Treaty.

    And forget the people that say we have to vote ‘Yes’ or be doomed. We drive on the left, we are still part of the EU. Sweden does not have the euro, it is still part of the EU etc. It is NOT a case of Vote Yes or else be ostacized, or perhaps in Dustin’s case, ostrich-ised !

    Dont vote like a turkey – Vote Wisely like an owl!


  18. rafalski

    I come from one of the “new” countries and have to disagree. With Lisbon Treaty we lose power just as Ireland does. The power goes to the biggies, namely Germany, France and the UK without whom getting double majority will not be possible. Small countries lose their veto, the last measure of protection from bullying by the large states.

    What happens if the Irish reject the Treaty? Nothing. As it’s been said, Lisbon Treaty is Euro Constitution rebranded as a Treaty after France and Netherlands rejected it and more countries were on their way to do the same.
    What happened to Netherlands and France after they voted NO? Nothing. Were they ostracized? Nope, that’s just politicians scaremongering.

  19. shtove

    Hasn’t the supremacy of EU law been a constitutional fact since we voted for it in … 1973? Maybe the Lisbon clause builds on this, but the principle is well established. The flip side is that the remit of EU law is limited to certain areas: it can’t interfere in areas that don’t concern cross-border trade/movement of workers/capital etc. Although it does have say on environmental standards. It’s a long time since I studied it, so maybe things have moved on since then.

    What will the Slavs bring, apart from prostitute-chic?

    - Long experience dealing with Russia’s explosive rage.

    - Long experience dealing with Islam, for good and bad.

    - And maybe they’ll help us introduce the flat tax?

  20. Sam

    Witty analogy but I have doubts about the accuracy of it. You seem to suggest, that the Lisbon treaty will help Slavic countries weild a greater influence in the E.U., but doesn’t the treaty allocate voting rights proportional to population? Aside from Poland with a population of 40 odd million, or Romania with about 22 million, the accession states are not large countries-the 12 countries have a combined population of about 100 million, whereas the original 15 have nearly 400 million. If the current system of weighting votes exists to give small countries a disproportionally large voice and the new system would use more proportional voting, then surely this would work against rather than for the Slavic countries

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