- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Contrary to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, the sky is not falling. Mr. Barroso is incensed that Ireland may well reject the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty in a much-anticipated referendum set to take place this Thursday. He warns of “a very negative effect for the European Union.” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the Financial Times editorial page and many others have piled on.

In truth, the EU would survive a “no” vote, which, to judge by the most recent polls, is a real possibility. The Nice Treaty would remain in effect if Lisbon stalls, meaning that even Mr. Barroso’s impassioned “There is no Plan B” - a line he delivered this week to the European Policy Center - is simply bluster. Though Mr. Barroso may not survive it politically, the EU would plod onward for another day and likely reconfigure its approach.

A “no” vote may even help the EU in the long run - that is, if it could simply start acknowledging some basic truths of governance. For starters, any political institution aiming for longevity must not only respect public opinion, but ground itself in public will. The sad fact is that the EU has never been willing to do this - as the trepidation this week over a single national referendum shows.

All sides agree that the Lisbon Treaty is a complicated document: It consists of hundreds of pages of bureaucratic changes to EU institutions. What’s more, EU governments do not seem to understand the document sufficiently. In broad outlines, the changes seem to entail a stronger foreign-policy executive for the multinational body as well as fewer chances for member nations and their representatives to slow down or prevent EU actions. This could be either a moderate or a very significant emboldening of executive authority. It is virtually impossible to tell which. And yet the presumption among EU leaders seems to be that the Irish are ignorant and unwelcome even to posit the most basic question.

The lesson in democratic governance is clear. When voting publics have little assurance not only of what may be buried in an agreement, or, more importantly, of what unaccountable officials may conjure up months or years from now, they are rightly hesitant.

The real story here is that Mr. Barroso and his colleagues have tied their political fortunes to Lisbon. They did so without much, if any, consultation with voting publics. This has been going on for many years. If they fail, they would suffer a major political embarrassment. The European Union - and the citizens it ostensibly serves - would survive them, of course.

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