Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tough times in Brussels for the Irish

Life is uncomfortable for Irish diplomats and journalists thanks to our 'No' to Lisbon says Jamie Smyth. Many EU governments and their MEPs are annoyed, diplomats in Brussels are annoyed even apolitical friends are annoyed. Meetings and dinner parties are just not what they used to be.

You know, I don't feel bad for Smyth (and, in fairness, I don't think he's looking for our sympathy) or the Irish diplomats & MEPs in Brussels. A comfortable life for Ireland's representatives in Brussels does not figure among my concerns. I understand that there may be a price to pay; the Irish delegation may find it hard to wrangle concessions out of our EU partners thanks to the 'No'. Fair enough, that's life. The sovereign Irish people have voted and as our representatives they should stop badmouthing those who sent them there and fight our corner.

I often get the sense that life in Brussels feeds a groupthink mentality among the MEP's, diplomats and bureaucrats. Nobody questions their basic assumptions - such as 'progress' means further centralization or faster, faster, faster. The 'No' votes from the Dutch & French were answered with a slight of hand effort to override their votes. Our 'No' has been met only by anger. There doesn't seem to be any real attempt to understand what has gone wrong or how their Brussels-centered perspective may be out of kilter with the great unwashed across the EU.

Political institutions aren't that different than stock markets or banks. Trust is a big part of what makes them work. Trust and confidence. Without those the institutions are nothing more than tyrannical bureaucracies waiting to be toppled. Unless the EU finds a way to explain itself better to the people across the EU it runs the risk of being blown away through a new wave of nationalism, particularly if the economy gets very tough. The EU will be a scapegoat and all those people who damned Ireland for having the temerity to vote 'No' will find themselves unloved and unemployed at the center of an empty shell.

This was a real opportunity for Brussels to learn lessons, to scale back ambitions and amp up the efforts to be accountable. I expected we'd be flooded with people from Brussels trying to understand why the Irish voted the way they did. Didn't happen, though. Instead of trying to understand all they've done is try to browbeat us into changing our minds. That is not how to win trust and confidence.