Last weekend, Jim O’Hara, the no-nonsense boss of Intel in Ireland, suggested to me that one way to think about the Lisbon vote was through the prism of Monty Python’s brilliant “what have the Romans ever done for us?” sketch.
In The Life of Brian, the army council of the People’s Front of Judea are sitting in a dingy room planning to kidnap Pilate’s wife. John Cleese, the chief freedom fighter, asks rhetorically, in an effort to inspire his troops ahead of the future dastardly acts: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Hilariously, the assembled would-be assassins reply: “‘Well . . . there’s the aqueduct, the sanitation, the roads, the public baths, education . . .” And so on, and so on.
When we think of the Lisbon Treaty, sometimes it serves to focus the mind if we pose the same question: “what have the Europeans ever done for us’’. This is particularly pertinent when we hear about the threat of a European army and the like.
Certain elements of the No campaign are trying to paint the EU as a threatening empire that is intent on taking away our freedom. Similarly, some on the Yes side are implying that the EU, and the EU alone, has been responsible for all our economic progress in the past 25 years.
Neither of these arguments is entirely accurate – there was a lot more going on economically than was the case in the EU.
All the poor EU countries did not grow at the rate we did because there are unique domestic factors, as well as other significant ones, at play.
The No side has put forward arguments which serve to paint the EU as some kind of ogre. We’ve seen images of the foetus and Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip, as well as fallacious arguments about the minimum wage in a political union whose DNA is ‘left of centre’ and where workers’ rights and union membership are a given.
So neither side is being accurate, but that’s the nature of referendums. Such is the opinion of the government that a prominent member of the Yes campaign told me that they were thinking of running a poster which simply stated: ‘Vote Yes now, get the government later’. What do you think of that one?
Let’s go back to the People’s Liberation Front of Judea and ask: what have the Europeans ever done for us?
Well, there’s the money, the roads, the schools, the labour legislation, the free trade area, the opportunities, the “gateway to Europe’’ argument which served us well when we were trying to host multinationals, the farm subsidies . . . and so on, and so on. It’s impossible to deny that the balance sheet has been stacked in our favour, and if the EU is now trying to tinker with its structure (which, after 40 years, has outgrown its usefulness),why shouldn’t it?
If we take the tinkering analogy a bit further, it strikes me that the EU is getting the builders in with the Lisbon Treaty. It is fixing the plumbing to make the house operate better. This is stressful. Surveys suggest that doing up the house is one of the most stressful things you can do. So the fear over the Lisbon Treaty is like the natural anxiety we have the night before the builders come to knock down the old bathroom and put in a new one. What will it look like? How much hassle will it be?
Will there be dust everywhere? These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves.
Does the house need new plumbing and, if it does, what will happen to the old way of doing things? I was just getting fond of the old immersion when we’ve decided to rip it out. Weren’t you?
If we can see beyond the pain of the builders, we should try to see what the house will look like. Sometimes, with renovations, the most lasting impressions are none at all. After a day or two, the place feels the same; once the smell of paint evaporates, it feels as if the extension or the new plumbing has always been there.
When we stand back, the impact of a Yes vote in Lisbon will be the same. We will continue. The slow progression of the EU- and Ireland’s membership of it – does appear to be in our best interests. It is now part of what we have become politically. It appears logical to continue down this road because, socially, the EU has been at the vanguard of moving legislation in a more open and tolerant direction in the past few decades.
Economically, it is a plus to be a member of a huge entity. (Although there are some serious reservations about being in a currency union when our main trading partners, Britain and the US, are not. If you doubt this, just ask yourself why are our shoppers voting with their feet in the North?) The issue of the currency is a separate one. You can still be a full member of the EU without adopting the euro – just like Denmark, Sweden, Britain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the three Baltic republics.
Maybe the Yes campaign shouldn’t overplay it. For example, it is hard to buy the ‘heart of Europe’ description of a small island at the edge of the Atlantic. We are not geographically or politically at the heart of Europe and, financially, we are very much out on the limb of Europe. But we are part of the EU and that is, from a strategic point of view on how we position the country, the best option.
So, on balance, I believe that we should just get on with it. I wish the arguments were stronger, but they are not. If we vote Yes, we continue along the path we have been on for the last 40 years. But none of the problems go away. We still have to sort out the banks (this column favours letting them go bust and starting again), and get the economy moving by taking little positive steps, rather than waiting for the big bang that will save us.
More than any other time in recent history, we have to sort out our own mess.
The EU will neither accelerate nor decelerate this process. It is up to each one of us to do something positive. The Lisbon Treaty should be passed, even if only for the simple fact that it is now a distraction to the real business of getting people back to work. Let’s just vote Yes – and then go for it.