Over the next few blogs it will be my intention to deal with the issues of democracy in general and as it is applied in Europe, with world competitiveness in the context of the major world federations i.e. China, India, United States and Europe. We will do all this in the context of the biggest issue facing our species, which is surviving and thriving and having enough energy in the post fossil fuel era.
Let me begin at a relatively strange place and that is democracy in Ireland. Ireland is a relatively small island occupied by two different nations who seem to have recently come to some accord. The Republic of Ireland has 167 members in the Dail. It is organised in multi-seat constituencies with at least three members in each constituency. There is also a Seanad and a whole series of County Councils to which there are also elections. The Irish have a great problem and that is that they are an island nation where roughly speaking everybody knows everybody else, class divisions are not quite the feature they are in other counties, although they do exist. The Irish are fundamentally pre-occupied with what exists for them and for them alone.
The insular nature of Irish thinking has been tempered somewhat by our participation in the EU.
So although the florid narrow minded Irish catholic nationalism has been tempered and the constitution altered to give effect to this temporarily, Ireland is not a very cosmopolitan place. The Irish are completely obsessed with the current recession as it affects them only. Policy development in Ireland is an incomplete process. We generally don’t have opposing think tanks with research based diversity of opinion. It seems that Ireland picks up a little bit of every passing …….ism.
The Irish political system is fundamentally based on serving the representative needs in the constituencies. It is a brave and very rare public representative who concentrates on policy development to the exclusion of his/her constituents. Those representatives who delegate constituency work to a local office run great risks of not being elected.
Irish political history is littered with incidences of politicians who concentrated on their ministries and policy development work to find themselves turfed out at the next general election.
There is one representative for every 24,000 Irish people; there is one representative for every 90,000 in Britain. There in one MEP for every 668,000 Europeans.
So democracy in Europe has to mean something different from democracy in Ireland.
There is little point trying to represent the better part of a million people individually. So what members of the European Parliament try to do is to focus on some aspect of policy. They sit on various committees, they engage in intense debate, they interact with the European Commission, they help formulate directives which are the precursors of law in every European State. When it came for Europe to decide on whether to adopt the Treaty of Lisbon or not the Irish demanded a referendum. Alone among the nations the Irish were not satisfied with big country democracy. They brought Lisbon down to the constituencies. European policy debate was subject to all manner of local considerations. In Co. Roscommon for instance the posters proclaimed “Roscommon needs its hospital, Vote No”.
The Lisbon Treaty was subjected to the kinds of local populism smell tests. The Irish were being asked to move from a personal, clientalist democratic format to a policy driven super nationalist standpoint. In this context it was extremely easy to misrepresent the Treaty of Lisbon. It was claimed that the sons of Ireland would be conscripted into a European army, that abortion would be foisted on the Irish people, that we would lose a commissioner (already ceded under the Nice Treaty) and that Ireland would lose its ability to maintain its 12.5% corporate tax rate. Nowhere was the locality of the referendum better manifest than the rejection of the Treaty by the farmers. They are kept in a reasonable standard of living by market restrictive practices with the Irish food sold at a subsidised high price in Europe. The farmers have received â‚¬43 billion from the EU, yet they voted against Lisbon. The reason they did so was because their leadership called for Europe to take a harder line against opening up world trade to the third world than they thought it was already doing.
By and large, narrow parochialism triumphed over pan-European good. It will do so again if the same quality of leadership applies as was demonstrated last year.