On Thursday 12th June, Ireland voted by referendum and rejected the European Union Lisbon Treaty by 53% to 47%. This was a defeat for the political, labour and employer establishment, who overwhelmingly supported a ‘Yes’ vote and a victory for an unlikely band of disparate ‘No’ campaigners. The US equivalent would be if the President, Senate, House and all state governors were defeated by a campaign coalition of anti-abortionists, libertarians, Ralph Nader and Michael Moore.
Such a political earthquake had been predicted by opinion polls in the last month; however, the Irish Government were slow to react to such straws in the wind and are now in a bind that will be difficult to get out of. At least twenty-four nations in the European Union (EU) out of twenty-seven member states have either ratified or plan to ratify the treaty. By law the treaty requires all member states to adopt it for it to come into fruition – but Lisbon may not be dead yet.
The Lisbon Treaty is essentially a re-hash of a failed European Union constitution. It provides for a streamlining of procedures, enhanced defensive co-operation, a more united foreign policy and in response to the old Kissinger quote of who to call when you want to talk to Europe, an elected EU President. The Irish constitution requires that a referendum be held should any legislation or treaty effecting sovereignty be under consideration.
The Treaty was defeated for several reasons. The main factor is that most people did not understand what they were being asked to vote for. In one vox pop, a student expressed her confusion at the ‘legal jibber-jabber’ within the 300-page document. Several government ministers confessed that they hadn’t read the treaty. There was a suspicion that the EU, and particularly the elite bureaucracy of the EU Commission (the body’s Civil Service), was trying to hoodwink the electorate by disguising unpalatable provisions behind impenetrable sub-clauses.
Another reason for the ‘No’ vote was the perceived lack of democratic accountability at the heart of the EU. The Commission’s accounts have not been signed off on for several years, the European parliament only shares power with Ministers and Commissioners and is not the driver of legislation that it should be and there is wide-scale milking of expenses done by Members of the European Parliament themselves.
Domestic issues played a major part in the referendum’s defeat too. Defence and neutrality were major concerns for Irish voters – they did not want a drift towards a European army or an increase in defence spending. While the treaty did not provide for Irish troops going to Afghanistan, it did raise the prospect of such events happening in the future. Ireland may have a compromised version of neutrality but it’s one from which few voters wish to depart. The spectre of globalisation and job losses arose on the campaign trail too; Ireland, like the rest of the World, is in an economic downturn right now; it’s always difficult for governments in such a political climate. Abortion was also a fringe issue – would a liberal EU Court impose the practice which is currently illegal in Ireland? Then questions of taxation (would it be raised by the EU), deep-sea fishing quotas (Irish fishermen are feeling the pinch) and executive representation (Ireland would lose her right to an automatic Commissioner) were all winners for the ‘No’ campaigners.
A major factor in the defeat of the ‘Yes’ side was their often-arrogant approach to the electorate. An elite of European insiders, current and ex-government ministers were up against a motley crew of militant pro-lifers, Trotskyites, farmers, Sinn Fein, a think-tank run by a man with links to the US military and more importantly, an electorate that didn’t have a clue what the treaty was about. The establishment sought to sell the treaty on a ‘trust us’ basis; that’s not enough any more as voters and politicians no longer have that sort of relationship.
If most of the ‘No’ voters were honest, they’ll say that they voted no in order to ‘Stick It To The Man’ (SITTM). Ireland’s former Prime minister, Bertie Ahern, is up to his neck in corruption allegations, the current incumbent Brian Cowan, is tainted as having been part of Ahern’s administration (but is still personally popular) and there is a SITTM anger out there (be it your boss, the government, the EU or your neighbour).
So what now? Ireland may be asked to re-hold the referendum with a few protocols inserted protecting the native defence status amongst others. This will be very hard for a government to do; it is flying in the face of a democratic verdict. The other EU member states may press ahead and exclude Ireland; again, politically problematic. Or, the EU may muddle through, just like it always has. Whatever it does, it will have to take account of one of the smallest countries in the Union and decide in what direction it wants to go.