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What part of 'no' don't they understand?

Selling the concept of a united Europe, or the European Union (EU), has always been tricky. The citizens of nations that have for centuries fought each other are suddenly told it is all in the past and the future lies in brotherly - and sisterly -harmony.

But when each country has a different language, a different culture and history and even a different currency, it takes a mighty leap of faith for the people to believe they have anything in common with their neighbour. Some nations, France for example, would claim that which binds are its religious beliefs, Christianity, which is why it objects so strongly to Turkey, a mainly Muslim society, becoming a member. Nationals of some other countries object merely because "they" - other nations - are foreigners, and "that is all that has to be said about it".

But the bureaucrats in Brussels, forever seeking ways in which to make their lives less arduous and more comfortable, persist in trying to sell the EU as a homogeneous body which benefits all (in Europe at least). Yet the majority of the public remain unconvinced, even after 50 years. It must be remembered that the EU emerged from the European Coal and Steel Community, which united six countries in 1951 - France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - and the Treaty of Rome in 1957, so it was always perceived as an economic bloc aimed at increasing trade between the member nations.

It was from such an inauspicious start that the EU grew into the bureaucratic nightmare it has become, receiving more ridicule from the public and press than appreciation. It is perhaps because of an inherent distrust of politicians and civil servants alike that the suspicions of the public caused them to look askance at the many rules emanating from Brussels.

To add fuel to this fire of public discontent was the numerous occasions when corruption and monetary mishandling were brought to light. That, and the complete waste of finances in supporting a top-heavy bureaucracy, exemplified by the extravagant and unnecessary duplication of having a parliament based both in Brussels and Strasbourg, effectively served to undermine any good the EU may have. Additionally, with the benefit of very lucrative expense and travel allowance to boost their generous salaries, members of parliament and bureaucrats in the EU are seen to exploit their positions for their own gain, while providing very little advantage to the people.

Several attempts

Fifty years after its founding, and some 27 nations later, the EU is still struggling to find a constitution that will be accepted unanimously. There have been several attempts but each has fallen at the first hurdle. As the EU expands, incorporating even more expense in running its bureaucratic administration, so it becomes even more difficult to find agreement over a constitution. As it has to be passed unanimously, it needs only one country to not accept the proposed constitution, for all the work done on it to fail to come to fruition. (An irony, because to be a member of the EU, the nation has to be a democracy, yet the EU itself does not accept a majority vote, one of the first principles of a democracy.)

The proposed constitution, when put to a referendum, was rejected by France (much to the leaders' embarrassment, being a founder-member) and Denmark. That scuppered the deal, which meant returning to basics. Revisions were made - called the Lisbon Treaty - which most saw as mere sleight of hand as it was so similar to previous proposals, which passed by 18 nations ( where it was not put to a referendum) but Ireland has now voted against it. Despite the negative vote, those in favour advocate proceeding with gaining approvals from the rest, presumably in the hope it will force Ireland into taking another referendum.

In theory, since it should be a unanimous vote, and a no vote has been given by one nation, there is no need to go any further with the proceedings, other than back to seek yet more compromise. But some are already questioning why the future of the EU should reside with three million Irish, when other nations are in favour. Yet such an argument overlooks the fact that the other nations did not dare put the issue to the people, in all likelihood because they knew in advance it would also get a negative vote. And politicians of all persuasions do not like to give up their lucrative positions; they will continue to hang on to tenaciously.

However, this time round there appears to be no Plan B, leaving many Brussels fat cats wondering where they will be dining this time next year.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jun 15, 2008
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