Ireland’s ‘no’ is EU’s opportunity

Paul Gillespie
13 June 2001

The Irish electorate’s rejection of the Nice Treaty in the 7 June referendum is a shock to Europe as much as to the Irish political establishment. The low turnout of just under 35% exemplifies the incomprehensibility of the treaty to many citizens. It also demonstrates the failure of Irish political leaders to offer a vision of a united continent capable of mobilising those who have traditionally supported European integration. It is not difficult to imagine similar outcomes in other member-states were the issue to be put to referendums there – or, indeed, in the candidate states where they definitely will be held.

Into this breach stepped a determined but disparate band of No’ campaigners, including nationalists, narrow sovereigntists, Sinn Feiners, the religious right, Greens and those who believe that Ireland’s military neutrality is threatened by the Rapid Reaction Force. They mounted a passionate and disciplined campaign drawing on popular fears of a loss of power, sovereignty, representation and democratic accountability – and the danger that enhanced cooperation could usher in a two-tier Europe.

Many additional bogeys were thrown in, such as the prospect of mass immigration, imposed divorce and abortion legislation or conscription to a European army should the Nice Treaty be ratified. In comparison the ‘Yes’ campaign was indolent, careless and complacent, based on an assumption that an elite consensus with minimal work on the ground would be sufficient to deliver a majority.

Reversing the result?

The government has now accepted the case made by its 14 EU partners that the Nice Treaty will not be renegotiated and that the matter is best dealt with largely in Ireland rather than on a pan-European basis.

A major political and diplomatic effort to reassure existing and candidate EU members that this was not a vote against enlargement has been mounted, culminating at this weekend’s European Council at Gothenberg. Ireland has much in common with them historically and politically, serving as a model of catch-up development for their elites. It would be a real pity if the opportunity to make common cause with them in an enlarged EU were to be lost.

A second referendum will be held by the end of 2002, after general elections this autumn or next summer. A National Forum on Europe is to be set up, modelled partly on a similar body in the mid-1990s that discussed Northern Ireland policy. It will represent the political parties and the major socio-economic interest groups. As well as discussing the Nice Treaty it will have to address the wider “post-Nice agenda” it has set in train, which will conclude with another inter-governmental conference in 2004, partly under an Irish EU presidency.

To the objection that this forum would simply reproduce the existing cross-party consensus in favour of the treaty, the government says the anti-Nice parties would also be represented and a wide range of bodies and individuals will give evidence. The Prime Minister, Mr Ahern, pledged a “genuine and comprehensive” debate with “no universal blueprint”. But there can be no doubting the government’s intention to reverse the ‘No’ result in another referendum. They would hope to mobilise the large ‘Yes’ constituency which abstained last week, either as a protest against being ill-informed about the treaty or because of a sheer lack of interest in it.

But in the light of caustic reaction by ‘No’ voters and campaigners that this arrogantly disregards the democratically expressed will of the Irish people, it looks as if it will not be easy to secure a ‘Yes’ result the next time. Not unless there is a major effort to inform people about its contents, conduct a comprehensive debate on what is involved and make sure the major political parties campaign effectively in its favour.

From reassurance to real debate

Thus, faute de mieux, Ireland’s governing elites are being forced to open up a democratic debate about Europe that could set constructive precedents elsewhere in the EU. Their own legitimacy has recently been tested by a series of tribunals investigating political corruption – and protests against that were clearly a factor in the referendum result.

Respect for popular concerns about the treaty and a certain humility after such a political shock are called for, even if that is difficult to marry with the refusal to pursue a renegotiation. Instead it looks as if a series of political declarations designed to reassure voters will be sought in coming months.

These will cover military neutrality, reiterating the government’s view that it is not threatened by Ireland’s voluntary participation in the Rapid Reaction Force – described by ‘No’ campaigners as a militarisation of the EU. Similar assurances will be sought on divorce and abortion.

But there are clear limits to what can be done along these lines without changing the treaty or negotiating opt-outs from it that would marginalise Ireland’s participation in the EU. Up to now Ireland has swum in its mainstream, even in the vanguard of integration, from which it has handsomely benefited economically and politically.

There has been a national consensus that sovereignty-pooling multiplies influence for a small state traditionally dominated by a large neighbour. EU membership has been something of a liberation for Ireland, differentiating it from the prolonged agonising about sovereignty loss in Britain and enabling it to diversify its trade and diplomacy away from that dependent relationship.

EU agricultural, cohesion and structural fund transfers are an important ingredient of Ireland’s recent spectacular economic growth, along with foreign investment attracted by low corporate taxation and social partnership arrangements between government, capital and labour.

Clearly a number of things have been changed by the very process of catching up with average EU personal incomes (but not as yet with average EU welfare or infrastructural levels). The political agreement in Northern Ireland has facilitated more normal relations with the UK, removing resistance to some of its Eurosceptical mindsets. That has told particularly with a neo-liberal section of the middle class who resent efforts led by the French and German governments to impose social democratic norms, including higher taxation, through the EU.

Greater political maturity and self-confidence have allowed assumptions about sovereignty and integration to be revisited. Some of this is a new selfishness brought on by recent prosperity, some a reversion to Catholic fundamentalism – combining elements of Franco’s Spain and Nero’s Rome, as one commentator put it.

Transforming the EU culture

The “post-Nice process” set out in the Declaration on the Future of the Union appended to the Nice Treaty identifies five areas for discussion: how to divide competences between the EU and the member-states; whether to make the Charter of Fundamental Rights (also appended) legally binding; simplifying the treaties; considering how national parliaments should relate to the EU; and improving the democratic legitimacy of EU institutions to bring them closer to citizens. These are indispensable objectives if the EU is to be transformed to meet the historic challenge of uniting Europe voluntarily and democratically under the rule of law.

But without a parallel transformation in the EU’s political culture and a more visionary account of its destiny and political methods they are in danger of simply repeating the worthiness and banality of existing debates and treaties, which alienate more people than they include.

It is not only many Irish voters and citizens who find EU affairs increasingly technocratic and economistic, the products of an elite bureaucratic process removed from normal democratic accountability. It is not only in Ireland that populist and xenophobic movements can find common cause with those who have more mainstream objections to the Nice Treaty’s lack of clarity and coherence.

As a result of this crisis, Ireland can contribute to developing both the ideals and practicalities of what is required in seeking a comprehensive and explicable constitution for the EU, which expresses its fundamental values. Provided the case for an expanded, united and integrated Europe is put forcefully by its leaders throughout the EU. I believe that should this historic objective be presented with vision and conviction, a majority in Ireland will say ‘yes’.

But it has also to be done across the whole continent, so that it is not seen as an ‘Irish’ question any longer. Instead it has to be an invitation to the Irish to join the larger argument – the ‘yes’ must be heard around Europe if it is to be echoed and reinforced in its western isle.

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