The future of the European Union hangs in the balance as Ireland votes Oct. 2 on a treaty to strengthen the EU. Two historic events should push them toward "yes" – the "great recession" of 2009 and Russia's invasion of Georgia last year.
Friday's vote is a do-over for Ireland. In 2008, its voters said "no" to a proposed pact that would streamline EU decision-making and raise Europe's profile on the world stage. They worried that the Lisbon Treaty – a revamped European "constitution" – would override national rights on near-and-dear issues of abortion, corporate taxes, and military neutrality.
Dublin has since worked out guarantees for this check list, and polls show an inclination to approve. But Europe is still holding its breath. The leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic have yet to sign the treaty, although their parliaments have approved it. They would likely fall into line if Ireland gives the nod.
Foremost in the thought of the Irish should be two questions pertinent to members of this unwieldy 27-nation bloc. What has the EU done for us lately? What could a new-and-improved EU do for us in the future?
The answer to the first question can be found in the great recession. The crisis has pounded Ireland like the ocean on its rocky coast. It dumped dreadful unemployment (12.6 percent) on the nation and seriously eroded economic growth. For the first time in 20 years, Ireland is experiencing net emigration (more people leaving than coming).
But things would have been much worse were it not for EU membership and adoption of the euro currency. Ireland benefited from well-structured interventions by the European Central Bank. And the euro has proven to be a haven of stability. That's one key reason why Iceland applied this summer to join the EU. Never again does it want to experience currency free-fall.
Of course, the people of Ireland don't need a new treaty to enjoy European Central Bank privileges (or, in boom times, labor from EU-member Poland.) But if they vote against the treaty, they halt Europe's decades-long trek toward greater economic unity. A smoother-running, more streamlined EU means a better economic environment for investors and jobs.
But economic benefits aren't the whole story here. As the founders of the EU realized back in the 1950s, economic integration breeds peace – which is why Germany was a member of this club from the start. As the Irish look to the future, they should consider the implications of treaty rejection on European security as a whole.
This is where Russia's outrageous invasion of Georgia comes in (although, as the world learned from an EU inquiry this week, Georgia triggered the war).
Volatile countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, still living in fear of Moscow's shadow, have EU aspirations. Their joining would be years away, but that possibility is lost if Ireland rejects the Lisbon Treaty and the supersized EU of the post- cold-war era lumbers along as haltingly as it does now.
The prospect of EU membership has been a stabilizing force in Europe. It reinforced political and economic reform in central Europe. It moved the tinderbox Balkans in a peaceful direction. It's pushing NATO-member Turkey toward a stronger democracy and free-market economy. But it's hard to see Europe taking on more new members without a Lisbon Treaty.
With it, a future Europe can be more stable. It can continue to attract reform-minded members – and repel aggression among states.
That's worth voting for.