Thursday, June 12, 2008

As Ireland goes ...

Ireland votes today on the European constitution, and Europe waits with bated breath. Since Ireland has, by most accounts, benefited handsomely from EU largesse, a no vote would be astonishing--but not surprising. (I am reminded of the--doubtless apocryphal--story of the lexicographer Littré, whose wife one day caught him in bed with another woman. "Je suis surprise," said the wife. "Non, madame," replied Littré: "Vous, vous êtes étonnée. C'est moi qui suis surpris." If only all the nuances of French came with such delightful mnemonic anecdotes.)

As I was saying, the fear of a no vote once again has the chattering classes agitated. Of course, as with the French and Dutch no votes of 2005, Europe will limp on, though it is a valid question to ask how many such repudiations can be sustained before a politician in a major country is elected on a thumpingly anti-European platform, and real reform rather than just treaty-tinkering becomes the order of the day? (Answer: not long.) But national referenda are not the only tests Europe is facing at the moment. The latest oil shock, rising prices for food and other commodities, and other economic stresses are putting Europe to the test as well.

More immediately, these stresses are putting the Eurozone to the test: is it really an optimal currency area? If inflationary pressures provoke very different responses in different countries, with inflation rising very rapidly in some places and much less rapidly in others, the answer will be no. And what would be done then? No one wants to think about it. But let's see what happens in Ireland. A yes vote might postpone the need for such thinking indefinitely. A no vote, on the other hand, will be clear proof that economic rewards alone cannot generate sufficient loyalty to hold the Union together. Europe will need to invent a new rationale for itself.

What enormous power the Irish suddenly have! With just one percent of Europe's population, they may determine Europe's future. It's rather like the United States, where a handful of voters in Iowa have gained the power to launch or derail presidential juggernauts. Is this a democratic aberration, or the quintessence of democracy, in that power cannot be content with pleasing only itself but must please the humble voter as well?