Hooray For Our Side

EU portfolio a ‘coup’ for Ireland – The Irish Times – Fri, Feb 12, 2010

THE APPOINTMENT of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as the EU’s Commissioner for Research and Innovation represents a tremendous opportunity for Ireland to enhance its reputation in this area and should be viewed as a major coup for the State, according to Martin Schuurmans, chairman of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

“Any country should be delighted to receive this portfolio and it should not be viewed as a public relations role. There’s a huge function there in putting innovation at the very heart of the commission agenda and making sure that we capitalise on innovation policy with very tangible results,” Schuurmans told The Irish Times on a recent visit to Ireland.

I remember Micheál Martin on a TV programme after the first Lisbon vote expressing a little exasperation at the idea that it mattered to have an Irish Commissioner, since the EU Commission was nothing more than the EU’s civil service, and that having Our Man or Woman in Brussels would not make a whit of difference. He was telling the truth.

Then, with the second Lisbon referendum, after analysing the reasons proferred by sampled groups, it made sense for the Yes side to present the retention of the Irish commissioner as a key concession from Brussels. Because having an Irish commissioner really mattered, as the Geary Institute study had found.

The explanation of the findings regarding the rotating commissionership and majority voting being seen to be in the Treaty is that many people who correctly perceived the changes to the commissionership and to voting in the Council as being provided for in the treaty still voted YES – on the grounds that the losses involved were outweighed by the gains that would flow from ratification. Other people, with exactly the same perception that these two aspects were in the treaty, voted NO. Accordingly, it is entirely predictable that there would be no relationship between perceiving these matters to be in the treaty and whether one voted YES or NO. The impact of the perceived importance of retaining the full commissionership is an entirely different matter. Eighty per cent of Irish people believe that the commissionership is an important issue for Ireland within the EU; 65 per cent said it was an important issue in making up their minds how to vote and 17 per cent put it at the very top of their agenda of issues of importance to Ireland in the EU.

So whilst in terms of power and control over institutions on the part of the Irish population it meant bugger all, it was still a hugely important factor in how people in Ireland (mis)perceived the EU. And that meant that retaining the commissionership became an important lever for convincing people that second time around they had no good reason to vote No.

But the fact that so many people perceived the commissionership as important in the first instance demonstrates how little knowledge Irish people have about how EU institutions work. Someone like John Banville might put this down to an incorrigible Euroignorance on the part of the swinish multitude, preferring, as he does, to follow people who have complicated ideas.

So where did people get the idea that loss of a commissioner was such a calamity? Lots of different places, I suppose, not least the fact that it was brandished as a prime reason to vote No by certain groups, and that it was one of the few changes in the Lisbon Treaty that could be outlined in bullet-point format. But beyond that, my reckoning it isn’t so much that people had been watching closely whatever the EU commissioner of the day, Charlie McCreevy or Peter Sutherland or whoever, had been getting up to, and decided that yes, they were doing important work on behalf of Ireland. No: the fixation on the commissioner probably stemmed from the fact that historically it was one of the few consistent reference points for Irish participation in the EU, maybe as a sort of projection of the image of the local TD in the Irish Republic onto the mostly blank canvas of the EEC/EC/EU: the person who’d make sure you would be looked after in whatever was going down. All in all, a thoroughly rotten way of imagining what the EU is about, but not one of any concern to EU policy elites.

When it comes to the second referendum campaign, Martin’s sensible position is nowhere to be found, and the retention of the commissioner is touted in pro-Lisbon propaganda as a central plank of why you should vote Yes, as a component of an improved democratic structure introduced by the Irish people.

The Lisbon Treaty: Power to the People « Generation YES

The reforms articulated by the Lisbon Treaty strengthen democracy at both the Irish and European level. They provide for the retention of an Irish commissioner, a more democratic, effective and cohesive Union legislative process, more power for our Irish MEPs and greater input into EU lawmaking at the national level.

Lisbon means we keep our commissioner. Many Irish people were rightly concerned about the loss of Ireland’s commissioner at the time of the last referendum. For a small country like Ireland, this was a big concession. This time around, the guarantees won by the Irish government mean that we must vote Yes to keep our commissioner. If we vote No we will lose this right…..

Our government fought for and achieved this unanimous agreement. This means that unless we pass Lisbon, we lose our right to a commissioner. Former Irish commissioners like Peter Sutherland and Patrick Hillery have served Ireland well in the past. Passing Lisbon will keep our place at the table.

Not much to be gained complaining about the cynicism on display here and elsewhere on this score, even if this is a pretty instructive example of how to put lipstick on a pig. What I think it illustrates fairly well though is how when it comes to the EU, elites successfully manipulate public ignorance for their own ends with consummate ease. This flows from the existing structure of the EU, which is not intended to be the product of ‘power to the people’, as The Age of Consent claims, but, as Perry Anderson puts it here, and in his new book The New Old World:

LRB · Perry Anderson · Depicting Europe

Federalism stymied, inter-governmentalism corroded, what had emerged was neither the rudiments of a European democracy controlled by its citizens, nor the formation of a European directory guided by its powers, but a vast zone of increasingly unbound market exchange, much closer to a European ‘catallaxy’ as Hayek had conceived it.

What is interesting for me, and you may disagree, is how elite manipulation of opinion by a gombeen bourgeoisie (Anderson’s term) is not so much on account of an aspiration to a cosmopolitan ideal, but of the continuation of success stories of the nation state within the European context. So it is entirely in keeping with this that a prominent member of the European policy elite can say that a commissionership is ‘a major coup for the State’, even though the commissionership has nothing all to do with democratic power, and the Irish Times reproduces these remarks as though they were of compelling public interest: when Irish sections of the EU policy elite score a PR coup in Brussels, that’s something everyone is supposed to rejoice in. Pride in the shirt and all that.


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