The EU, Lisbon, and ineffective leadership

May 13, 2008 in General, News

Edmond Grace SJEdmond Grace SJ, author of Democracy and Public Happiness, wants to see the Lisbon treaty succeed. But he pulls no punches in this broadside against the ‘ineffective leadership’ of politicians who are promoting it.

Lisbon – with a little bit of uncertainty
If the people of Ireland adopt the Lisbon Treaty it will be in spite of the ineffective leadership of our politicians. I’m not saying that Irish politicians are unique in this. At European level a more polite way of referring to this ineffectiveness is to speak of ‘the democratic deficit.’ Leadership is ineffective when it fails to address public disquiet and disillusionment. Leadership is ineffective when it fails to appeal to people’s sense of right. Above leadership is ineffective when it presents a proposal which contains a truly historic reform and fails to alert the general public to the significance of that reform.

When the European Convention produced the Constitutional Treaty, it was an elephantine, uninspiring document which was singularly ill-suited to rallying ordinary citizens behind the European ideal. When the leaders of France and the Netherlands brought it to their electorates and got a rejection, their response, along with their colleagues in other EU governments, was to give the Constitutional Treaty some minor surgery, rename it the Lisbon Treaty and then give the following message to their electorates: ‘This time we’re making the decision, not you’. The manner in which the Lisbon Treaty was adopted in both France and the Netherlands has been observed by the rest of Europe, including little Ireland, and the only people who can claim to be impressed are the kind of ardent ‘Europeans’ who get Europe a bad name. Those leaders who hand out this kind of treatment to their electorates may see themselves as decisive, but their ‘decisiveness’ underscores a deeper ineffectiveness – an inability to explain their position to the general public and to persuade them of its wisdom.

Now, as we get ready to vote on the Lisbon Treaty, we Irish are deeply conscious that we are the only electorate in the European Union to have our say. We are also conscious of our experience with the Nice Treaty referenda and of how we were told, after rejecting it the first time, to go back and ‘get it right.’ We did so; some were aggrieved, arguing that our national sovereignty was being undermined, but most were happy enough – more than happy – with the enlargement of the EU, which resulted from the Nice Treaty. At least we did get to vote a second time – unlike the French and the Dutch.

These developments in Ireland, France and the Netherlands point to an underlying narrative of government in Europe. The political elite is saying to the citizen: ‘Don’t you think we know best?’ Democratic leaders are being ineffective when they allow this kind of narrative to take root. When people feel patronised by those in power they become suspicious and angry. Failure to acknowledge the resulting erosion of trust, and to respond to it, will reinforce a growing popular disillusionment with public life. The ultimate judgement of history on political leaders is on their effectiveness in relation to the greatest challenges of their day. No effective leader will ignore these ‘uncomfortable’ issues.

Another form of ineffective leadership is to be seen in the dark warnings of those who say that we will lose our influence in Europe if we don’t do what ‘they’ expect. This argument – ‘Don’t annoy the big neighbours’ – places our relationship with our fellow Europeans purely on the level of power and dependency. They may think they are being astute, but their line of argument effectively calls on their fellow citizens to vote out of fear rather than conviction. To see politics purely in terms of the power of others is to surrender a potent source of one’s own power – a sense of right. A call to vote yes ‘so as not to lose our influence’ is little more than a buffed-up version of our old begging bowl, which, in the hands of contemporary Ireland, must look very strange indeed to our European neighbours. Britain, France and Germany are powerful in a way that we most certainly are not, but they, like us, are democracies. Governments get criticised and elections get lost, there as here. Their societies have problems broadly similar to ours, and size and power is no great guarantee that they will resolve those problems more effectively than we will. One thing which we Irish will not enjoy, if we fail to speak with conviction, is their respect.

Perhaps the most telling example of ineffective leadership with regard to the Lisbon Treaty can be seen in one particular provision. Over the years hundreds of people have served as government ministers in EU Member States and between them they will have spent countless hours preparing for and attending meetings of the Council of Ministers. All laws made in Brussels must be approved by this body, which has always met behind closed doors. This will change if the Lisbon Treaty is adopted. Article 2 (28)(a) requires that the Council of Ministers meet in public ‘when considering and voting on a draft legislative act.’ We will be able to watch our Ministers at work making laws in our name.

Granted, for most of the time, this will be a tedious exercise, as anyone who has attended the average parliamentary session or a day at court will know. However, one of the glories of democracy is that these largely tedious institutions are open to public scrutiny. What makes that scrutiny glorious is that what happens in these places is never entirely predictable. There are those moments when patterns, long taken for granted, are overturned and when confrontation, indiscretion or protest become evident to all and cannot be revoked. These moments provide that element of public drama without which democracy cannot thrive.

If the Treaty is adopted, every moment of every meeting of the Council of Ministers will have this potential for drama. Ways of doing things which worked behind closed doors for half a century will have to change. It will require new skills and those skills will have to be tried out and developed in the public forum itself. This is bad news for Government Ministers and civil servants in their day to day work. It is good news for democracy – for that form of government in which those who govern must face that drama of uncertainty, which makes the governed sit up and take notice and want to make that uncertainty continue.

The political leaders of Europe have proposed that the Council of Ministers be opened up to public scrutiny, but they have presented this historic proposal in a manner which has all but drained it of political significance. Can anyone deny that such an oversight can only compound a growing disillusionment with ‘Brussels’ and ‘politicians’?

The world won’t end if this Treaty is rejected. The voters of France and the Netherlands have already rejected something similar but that, in itself, no reason for voting no. This treaty will bring about a significant reform of a major EU institution and that reform will be – quite literally – visible from the word go. We will see the Council of Ministers meeting in public. Perhaps one reason why our politicians have been so quiet about this is that it will have an undoubted effect on their own work in a manner which no one can fully predict. Those who are inclined to vote no as a general protest against ineffective political leadership might bear in mind that a yes vote might open up a much more uncomfortable – and challenging – scenario for the political leaders of both Ireland and Europe.

There are lots of ways of showing disquiet and frustration, but there’s only one way to open up the Council of Ministers to public scrutiny – a yes vote for Lisbon. Meanwhile our political leaders could help meet the real concerns of many people by answering a few questions. If they get out a majority vote on referendum day, will they be content to simply clap each other on the back and shout ‘we’ve won’? Have they nothing to say about the wider context in which this referendum is taking place? At this moment when the attention of Europe is focused on this small country in a manner totally out of proportion to our size or resources, have they, in our name, anything to say about the reform of the Council of Ministers and about a growing popular disenchantment with and indifference towards Europe?