Washington Americans recently made a best seller of a book insouciantly titled "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Last week the Irish were at it again.
By their resounding "no" in a referendum on the Nice Treaty, Irish voters advanced the cause of saving European democracy from its stealthiest post-1945 threat the relentlessly growing European superstate known by an anodyne name, the European Union. The "no" side's slogan: "You will lose power, money and freedom." True, true and true.
The treaty points toward expansion of the EU from 15 to 27 members by including Cyprus, Malta and 10 formerly communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe, thereby doubling the EU's territory and increasing its population by 30 percent. The new members would be the least affluent. Ireland, which has received $28 billion in EU aid in the 28 years since it joined as one of the poorest members, has since become one of the richest and does not relish becoming a net payer rather than recipient of transfer payments. Furthermore, some voters think the treaty, by advancing the EU's embryonic military establishment, threatens Ireland's traditional neutrality.
But behind such particular objections there is a general, and well-founded, suspicion of the EU as a threat to self-government. This threat is exemplified by the treaty provisions abolishing the national veto in 35 policy areas and further dividing Europe into two tiers, with heavily weighted voting favoring larger nations Germany, France, Italy, Britain. Concerning whom:
In the weeks before Ireland voted, Gerhard Schroeder, Germany's chancellor, proposed achieving a European constitution by 2004. Lionel Jospin, France's prime minister, proposed an EU police force, criminal justice policy, immigration policy and other centralizations and homogenizations advanced under the rubric of "harmonization." And Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, warned that the common currency might fail unless there is more harmonization of members' tax and spending policies.
Ireland is the second small nation to become sand in the gears of the Brussels-based machine working to atomize European peoples, to grind nations into a dust of individuals that can be more easily blown about by winds issuing from Brussels. Last year, Danish advocates of an ever-stronger European Union made the mistake that is almost never made, that of allowing the people affected a chance to express themselves about it. Danes were allowed to vote on adopting the euro. All Denmark's major political parties urged "hectored" would be a more apposite description Danes to vote "yes." So did almost all labor and business groups and newspapers. Having heard from this chorus of advanced thinkers, the uninstructible Danes voted "no."
Because the European project is perverse, its advocates probably will draw one of three perverse conclusions from the latest setback to it. They might decide never again to allow democratic comment on their anti-democratic enterprise. They might change the treaty ratification rules to annihilate minority rights and facilitate tyranny of the majority. Or they might be so blinkered by arrogance that they think their problem is not with their message but with their methods of communicating it. If they redouble their efforts at persuasion, European politics, which was drained of much of its significance by the end of the Cold War and the intellectual collapse of socialism, will soon be momentous again.
Ireland's Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, warned voters not to be "parochial" by failing to see "the big picture." They were scolded about even entertaining the idea that a nation of 3.7 million had a right to "delay the destiny of half a billion." "Destiny" was a telling rhetorical trope.
Invoking historical inevita-bility, designed to induce fatalism, is the recourse of movements reluctant to allow their destinations to seem like choices. Marxists always hoped the idea of inevitability would undermine resistance by inducing fatalism, and hence passivity.
In Ireland, it did not, precisely because enough voters discerned the "big picture." Ireland's greatest gift to political understanding, Edmund Burke, warned more than two centuries ago that "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophists, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever." Never mind chivalry, it is democracy that can be effectively extinguished by the argument that the EU's supposed (but probably chimeric) economic efficiencies justify its assault on the hard-won prerogatives of national parliaments.
"Europe" remains a geographical, not a political, or even cultural entity. As Sile de Valera, minister of arts and granddaughter of one of the Republic's founders, says, Ireland feels closer to Boston than to Berlin.