Europe Thrives on National Debate

Paul Gillespie
22 October 2002

Ireland has ratified the Nice Treaty by an emphatic margin of 63% to 37% in a second referendum on 19 October. Turnout, at 49%, was substantially up on the 35% recorded in the first referendum on the treaty in June 2001, when it was rejected by 54% to 46%.

Some 500,000 more voters came to the polls this time, almost all of them on the Yes side. The No vote held remarkably steady at 534,887 compared to 529, 478 in 2001; but it was overwhelmed by the rally of those mobilised by a far more active Yes campaign. Nevertheless, on both occasions the abstainers outnumbered those voting either way, by 65% and 51% respectively – compared to 37% in the June 2002 general election.

Ireland’s engagement with the European issues contained in the Nice Treaty thus becomes something of a case study of popular involvement in European integration. It is the only member-state to have had a referendum on Nice, arising from a narrow constitutional definition of sovereignty. It will be surprising if Ireland is the only state to have a referendum on the next treaty, arising from the Convention on the Future of Europe, since that seems bound to be a much more ambitious and far-reaching constitutional exercise. The idea of doing so could be encouraged by the accession referendums in most of the candidate states.

Ireland: pioneer of cosmopolitan democracy?

Many people made the point during the Irish referendum campaigns that if a similar exercise had been held in any of the other EU member-states the results would hardly have been so different. The suspicion of referendums elsewhere in the EU – arising from different histories and exposures to Bonapartist, populist or fascist use of them to endorse authoritarian rule – becomes less easy to sustain when the issue of the EU’s own democratic deficit is put on the political agenda by the convention’s deliberations and the forthcoming shock of rapid enlargement. EU-wide elections or referendums may become much more plausible in these settings as ways to tackle that deficit. In that sense Ireland could be a pioneer for forthcoming experiments in cosmopolitan democracy.

It has been universally acknowledged in Ireland that the whole exercise of holding two referendums has been highly educative, an authentic exercise in active citizenship. The point legitimises opponents of the treaty, who insist they were right to expose its faults, and supporters, who say it is only fair to ask people whether they are sure this is the result they want on such an important question as EU enlargement. The quality of the debate this time was much higher and it was based on a more informed public opinion.

This impression of participants and visitors was confirmed by opinion polls which showed that the electorate’s confidence in its overall grasp of the issues raised by the Nice Treaty went from 37% at the beginning to 47% at the end of that first Nice campaign, to 53% at the beginning of the Nice II campaign and to 64% a few days before the vote. The polls found that the more people know about the issues, the more they are inclined to vote Yes. It is quite clear from the results that the overwhelming majority of those who abstained in the first referendum voted Yes in the second one. And the swing was dramatically national – whereas only two constituencies voted Yes in 2001, all of them did so this year, belying suggestions that farmers and other beneficiaries of EU transfers voted against Nice because they feared enlargement would bring them to an end as Ireland becomes a net contributor to the EU budget.

Turnout was up uniformly too. Intriguingly, Yes voters clearly distinguished between their dissatisfaction with the Government over corruption scandals and budgetary cutbacks after the election and the need to support it on Nice. Opposition parties encouraged their supporters to save up their protests for subsequent elections.

The qualitative change in the Yes campaign ensured that voters were exposed to alternative accounts of issues such as enlargement, neutrality and security, economic stability, power and identity, sovereignty, enhanced cooperation, relations between large and small states and representation in EU institutions. A Swedish journalist told me he was astonished to find the taxi driver who brought him in from Dublin airport leading him into a highly informed discussion about the democratic merits of a larger or smaller European Commission after enlargement – a subject the average Swedish voter would know little or nothing about.

Federalism and sovereigntism: the continuing argument

In a commentary on the result, the political scientist Richard Sinnott said that Ireland’s experience shows that ‘preparation for EU referendums requires two kinds of campaign – a long campaign of information and education and a short campaign of argument and persuasion.’

After the 2001 referendum, the Government set up a National Forum on Europe, drawing together the main political parties and activist groups involved in the campaign. Its mandate was to discuss the issues thrown up and to hear political and expert speakers from Ireland and elsewhere in the EU. It met intensively from October 2001 to April 2002, published its proceedings and several reports, and conducted public sessions throughout the state. It made a valuable contribution to informing and educating politicians, activists and the wider public – but in the context of continuing political argument. It now expects to continue its work by shadowing the Convention and the subsequent Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC). Within the Irish parliament a new system of scrutiny of EU business is being introduced, which should make it easier to track negotiations and ensure greater accountability.

It was striking at the end of the campaign to find so many of those involved insisting that many of the issues raised in it will not go away and will be addressed through the Convention and the IGC. Ireland holds the EU presidency from January to June 2004 and could even chair the final treaty negotiations. It is not clear as yet how the campaign and its outcome have affected the shape of Ireland’s approach to the Convention. The Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat centre-right governing coalition has adopted a cautious attitude to it so far, warning against federalist ambitions and seeking to keep existing institutional balances, which favour smaller states, intact. They will be very alert to plans for ambitious change involving further transfers of national sovereignty as a result of their encounter with the Irish electorate. But they are equally aware that an effective EU is in Ireland’s interest, and they will be emboldened to stay in its mainstream.

The main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, will be more confident in their respective enthusiasm for closer integration, so long as it marries national and European democracy satisfactorily. But the campaign has revealed significant reservations about closer integration in Labour’s ranks, of which its new leader will have to take full account. A similar fissure was exposed in the ranks of the Greens, who now have six members of Dail Eireann. Although the leadership opposed Nice on largely sovereigntist, even Eurosceptic grounds, significant layers of its members and supporters are drawn to the radical federalising approach of the German Greens. Sinn Fein shares such sovereigntist positions, as do most of the growing independent left-wing organisations; but they too will be increasingly exposed to alternative internationalist arguments based on the need to organise pan-nationally to tackle a globalisation so dominated by capital. The question is whether that is best done through or against the EU.

The developing European public sphere

Thus, Ireland emerges from its encounter with the Nice Treaty better informed and more ready to engage politically with an enlarged and reformed European Union. There are many opportunities to make alliances with the new member-states, based on their gratitude for the solidarity of a second Yes, which allows them to join in timely and agreed fashion. There are several historical and political parallels between them and Ireland, which they regard as a model of catch-up development with the successful use of EU laws and funds.

Ireland is not only better informed, it is now more prepared for political argument and contestation about the future political direction of European integration. It is not so easy to assert, as many anti-Nice activists have done, that the inevitable outcome is a federal and militarised superstate – nor for pro-Nice campaigners to disguise ambitious plans for an EU constitution and a more politicised transnational public sphere.

Thomas Risse of the Free University of Berlin, one of the principal researchers and theorists of that emerging European public sphere, warns against the assumption of many political and business leaders in Europe that: ‘controversial debates on Europe, the EU, and European policies will endanger the European integration process and slow it down considerably. Therefore, one should not touch the European elite consensus, which still prevails in many, particularly Continental European countries.’

The Irish case lends weight to the forthright conclusion Risse draws from recent research on the subject: ‘This belief is dangerous in democratic terms and plain wrong in empirical terms. Contestation and politicization is constitutive for a democratic polity, including the European polity. And it serves a European purpose, since it is bound to increase the issue salience and significance of European affairs in the national polities. The date on frames of reference [of national debates on EU issues in the different member-states] suggests that raising the salience of the EU in the national polities will not drive the Europeans apart, but pull them together in the European public sphere.'

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