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The meaning of 'No'

Mark Mardell | 01:00 UK time, Thursday, 19 June 2008

EU leaders are gathering in Brussels for a tense summit after the Irish said "No" to the Lisbon Treaty. But the 27-nation bloc won't be considering scrapping the whole project. Here is a longer version of my piece which was on this morning's Radio 4 Today programme.

Flags of EU and member nationsTo many a British newspaper the Irish are a heroic race, who have smashed the hated Lisbon Treaty. In many European capitals campaigners gathered outside Irish embassies to show their thanks. But many newspapers on the continent take a rather different tack. A Swedish newspaper fumed "Ireland should be forced to rethink or become an associate member of the EU". An Austrian editorial declared "Ireland should do the rest of Europe a favour and leave".

This is not just the gut reaction of some journalists, but of many in the political classes all over Europe. And it raises the question: "What part of 'No' do they not understand?" It sounds like a cheap jibe, but it goes to the heart of the European Union. Those who dislike the EU's direction of travel call it the "ratchet effect": the EU's only movement is one way, towards more common policies, more co-operation between countries, more power to the centre.

But the British newspaper template - that Brussels is forcing reluctant, bullied countries to do something or other - misses an important point. National governments are the ones forcing the pace, not the Commission, not the European Parliament.

All the EU countries signed this thing, most genuinely like it, and governments like to get their way. Especially big ones. Imagine if Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy and all the rest had agreed to build a space rocket and Ireland for whatever reason objected. Would they say: "OK that's fine, we'll call the whole thing off", or would they press ahead with the plan without Ireland?

But of course the European Union is not a space rocket or any other one-off project... it's a club with a mission: and moreover a quite clearly stated mission. Those who signed the Treaty of Rome, establishing the Common Market 50 years ago agreed they were "DETERMINED to establish the foundations of an ever closer union among the European peoples".

The Treaty of Nice, the one that the EU operates under at the moment, says they are: "RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe".

The Lisbon Treaty repeats this and adds it should "mark a new stage in the process of European integration".

And of course the EU has the European commissioners. They have two main jobs: to suggest new laws, and to promote the purpose of the treaties. So it's in their job spec to push for more integration.

Some argue history is at the heart of it. They would say the architects of the European project came out of the war profoundly suspicious of what they would have regarded as the excess of democracy, the populism that produced Hitler and Mussolini. They wanted to establish a French-style bureaucracy, as wise guardians of a higher truth. This may be so.

I suspect though that one seasoned diplomat got it right when he said there are "a lot of people who think they have been working for a long time for the good of the people of Europe and really don't understand why the benefits have not come across".

I'm told that when the foreign ministers met in Luxembourg earlier this week half of them raised the question of what they were doing wrong, and agonised about being seen as an out-of-touch technocratic elite. What they don't discuss is whether the EU should be a completely different beast altogether.

That is very frustrating for people who want a change of direction. They ask if there is anything anyone could do that would derail the project. After the Danish people rejected Maastricht, the Irish people rejected Nice, the French and Dutch people rejected the constitution and now after this vote, there is no fundamental rethink. After the rejection of the constitution, Tony Blair said that the trumpet had sounded outside the walls. But the walls have not fallen. In the end the European Union is still about governments and what they want. Only a government with a very strong will and a clear agenda to shake the foundations could make a "No" mean no. That is why on the continent they will watch the next British general election with a degree of nerves.

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