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Financial Times

Editorial comment: Riot vs protest. June 18 2001

The violence and destruction on the streets of Gothenburg on Friday and Saturday had little or nothing to do with protests against the European Union, whose leaders were meeting nearby. Those behind the violence were international anarchists spoiling for a fight, inspired by their previous successes in Seattle, Geneva and elsewhere. They were not looking for a reasoned debate but merely an excuse to "smash capitalism".

Such behaviour does nothing to promote the cause of the peaceful protesters who genuinely fear the consequences of globalisation. Nor does it help those who are concerned about the activities and opaque processes of the EU and other international institutions. It would be simplistic and counterproductive to lump them all into one category of people "alienated" by the complexity and distance of modern government. Yet there is a danger of that happening.

The Irish referendum, which was held 10 days ago and delivered an embarrassing No vote to the EU Treaty of Nice, showed how difficult it is to persuade voters to get out and vote in favour of the European "project". In this case, it concerned the entire process of EU enlargement to include the emerging democracies of eastern Europe - about which Irish voters are normally more enthusiastic than most. A turnout of barely one third of the electorate ensured a victory for the hardcore rejectionists.

Whatever the cause of the outcome, it was a legal and democratic vote. It is, therefore, extremely dangerous for the EU leaders to appear to be treating it with disdain and insisting that the Nice treaty cannot be amended. Yet that seems to be the response from the other 14 member states. Such arrogance could invite an even more forthright rejection at a second Irish referendum, if no attempt has been made to meet the objections.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, told his colleagues in Gothenburg of "a widespread sense of disconnection" between the institutions of the EU and its citizens. He is right, although he must personally share some of the blame for the Irish vote. That sense of disconnection is a response to the lack of transparency, clarity and democracy in EU decision-making.

In spite of the violence outside, the EU leaders made good progress at the Gothenburg summit in firming up their target dates for EU enlargement. Yet their own electorates remain to be convinced that it is a good idea. They need to be persuaded, not ignored.

Otherwise they may end up rejecting reason and taking to the streets themselves.