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Ireland's 'No': a European View

The prospect of a two-speed Europe could turn the Irish back to Europe
John Palmer
13 June 2008

John Palmer (London, author): This time it really is serious. The rejection by a majority of Irish people voting in the referendum to ratify the European Union Treaty of Lisbon has thrown not merely the fate of the treaty but the longer term prospects for European integration into the unknown. At the very least it will mean that most of the elementary reforms the EU needs to manage its affairs with an ever growing membership and an ever expanding array of global challenges will have to be put on hold – maybe for years.

As a highly embarrassed Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, publicly accepted the verdict of the Irish referendum, a total of 18 of the 27 EU Member States had already approved the Lisbon Treaty through their national Parliaments. All the other countries – seemingly including the British – have now pledged themselves to continue with the ratification. By the end of the summer there is every prospect that 26 of the 27 will have approved the Lisbon Treaty.

So why did the Irish people – traditionally one of the most-European in the EU – decide to blow up the train just as it was approaching the station? This question is easier to ask than to answer. Even the organisations which led the Irish “No” campaign were careful to proclaim themselves strongly in favour of Ireland remaining “at the heart” of a more united and stronger European Union.

To judge by the questions which were raised during the brief referendum campaign, many Irish voters were worried that the Lisbon Treaty would lead to Irish young men being “conscripted into a European army” and Ireland being required to abandon its long standing policy of military neutrality. The fact that there is no such provision anywhere in the treaty for a European army or for conscription or any requirement for Ireland to abandon neutrality was pointed out – but either not understood or not believed.

Others expressed concern that Ireland would lose the right to fix its own levels of corporate taxation (an important instrument in the Celtic Tigers recent growth strategy). To head off these concerns the Irish government secured legal language reinforcing its right to fix its own tax rates in this area. But again this was either not understood or not believed.

There were other more “cultural” issues. Radical right wing Catholic groups claimed that the treaty would enforce abortion, prostitution and a host of other sins on the faithful. Even some of the Catholic bishops pointed out that this was rubbish. Some chose not to hear or not to believe. What is plainly the case is that opposition to the treaty was linked in the minds of large numbers of working class voters with fears that privatisation of public services, anti-trade union legislation and new “neo-liberal” economic policies would follow. Those who pointed out that none of these policies were part of the Lisbon Treaty and, indeed, that the Lisbon Treaty strengthened workers rights and policies for social cohesion were either not heard or not believed.

The nearest thing to a coordinating centre for the “No” campaign was “Libertas” run by Declan Ganley, an English born millionaire businessman with close business connections with the US military. But other parts of this broad popular front included Sinn Fein and sections of the far left as well as the ultra-Catholic right. There is no doubt that they tapped into a rich seam of inchoate but strongly felt alienation from the Irish political establishment (ALL the Irish political parties except Sinn Fein were in support of the treaty.)

The one slogan which united this disparate anti-treaty coalition was the need for far greater democratic control of the institutions of EU governance. The fact that the treaty provides for more powers both for national Parliaments and the elected European Parliament was either dismissed or felt to be insufficient. But perhaps EU governments now accept that they should have accepted the ideas floated in the original Convention on the Future of Europe which drew up the original but ill-fated Constitution which included not merely an elected Commission President (still in the treaty) but also an elected President of the Council.

For the “Yes” side the referendum campaign was a predictable disaster. Complacent establishment politicians were too often ill-briefed and lethargic in making a case for a stronger and more effective Europe to confront the challenges of globalisation, insecurity, climate change and – now – economic turbulence. Almost from the start of the referendum campaign the “Yes” politicians were reduced to merely responding to ever wilder allegation and charges from the “No” side, who also benefitted from the wholehearted supported of the euro-sceptic British press which has a growing circulation in Ireland. But the cleverest ploy of all was when the “No” campaigners said “If you have not read or understood the treaty it would be safer to vote “No.”

What now? Next week EU heads of government meeting for their quarterly summit in Brussels will have to jettison much of their planned agenda and discuss what on earth can be done. The European Commission and other EU governments have, understandably, thrown to ball back into the Irish government’s court. It will be for Cowen and his colleagues to explain first, why the referendum was lost and second, what the Irish people want changed in the treaty. As matters stand the Dublin government hasn’t a clue what to propose.

For the time being the EU will manage its affairs under the complex and out-of-date provisions of the Nice Treaty. Plans to implement more effective policies on climate change, energy security, justice and the fight against crime will have to be suspended. So too will plans to strengthen EU decision-making on foreign and security policy. This at least is welcome to the neo-cons in Washington. John Bolton – Bush’s former UN ambassador – has already warned that the EU was showing too much independence of NATO on these issues.

Some technical changes to the conduct of business – maybe even the planned Presidency of the European Council – might agreed anyway since they do not need to form part of a treaty. It is unlikely that new wording can be found to satisfy the Irish “No” voters on existential issues like neutrality or taxation which add anything to the guarantees already in the treaty and could justify a rerun of the referendum.

The next scheduled stop for a new treaty will probably come when Croatia is admitted to the EU around 2010 – 2012. By then it might be possible to restructure the most important elements in the Lisbon Treaty in a new treaty to approve Croatia’s accession. The trouble is that the problems and looming crises with which the EU is faced cannot also be put on hold. For example the loss of the provisions on climate change will make it harder for the EU to get the kind of global post-Kyoto deal from the US and China which had been planned.

That said it would be a mistake to under estimate the determination of the great majority of EU governments to find a way forward. Perhaps the key lies in the UK. If the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty were to be followed by a new Conservative government in London seeking a root and branch renegotiation of its relationship with the EU, the result might be a decision by the great bulk of Member States to proceed to a closer Union on their own. This might satisfy the hard line euro-sceptics in Britain. It would cause immense alarm in Ireland which might then be asked to finally choose between its links to Britain and those with Europe as a whole.

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