The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits

Joseph Curtin Johnny Ryan
13 June 2008

"The people have spoken." The pithy comment of the Republic of Ireland's justice minister Dermot Ahern as the votes were being counted from the country's referendum on the European Union's "reform treaty" on 12 June 2008 acknowledges both the victory of the "no" camp and the fact that the outcome (by a decisive margin of 54%-46%) poses anew questions about the way the EU and its twenty-seven member-states relate to their citizens. Ireland may have been obliged by its national constitution to hold a referendum on the treaty agreed at the Lisbon summit in October 2007 - whereas other states could rely on a parliamentary majority to secure acceptance - but the entire union shares the weight of the result from Dublin.

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The aftermath of the referendum will be protracted and painful, as the union struggles to respond to a third popular rejection of the constitutional treaty in its original or revised manifestation (the first two being in the French and Dutch referenda of May-June 2005). There will be renewed talk of the union's "democratic deficit" and proposals to correct it. But the inquest will also have to take account of the particular, Irish circumstances of the latest verdict. For the referendum campaign and its result have indeed exposed a "democratic deficit", but it lies also in Dublin and it is here too that it must be addressed.

The road to rejection

The failure of the Lisbon treaty - it can only be ratified if all member-states agree to do so - means that at some point yet another piece of legislation will become necessary to allow the current, unprecedented range of European Union institutions and systems of operation a basis on which to function. The EU's institutional structures were originally established for a small union; twenty-seven member-states and an expanding set of responsibilities require a new legal foundation. Europe as a whole, but also its individual components, has to think harder than ever about how such measures can meet a proper democratic test. In this sense the Irish referendum could yet become both a landmark event in the EU's history, and one that offers valuable lessons for the union's future.

Johnny Ryan works at the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin. He is the author of Countering Militant Islamist Radicalisation on the Internet: A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Web (Institute of European Affairs, 2007). His blog is here

Also by Johnny Ryan in openDemocracy:

"The militant Islamist call and its echo" (1 August 2007)

"Europe, terrorism and the internet" (6 November 2007)

"iWar: pirates, states and the internet" (6 February 2008)

Joseph Curtin works at the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin

The Institute of European and International Affairs holds no corporate opinions of its own; the opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors The treaty campaign ran aground on at least three issues relating to domestic Irish politics, as well as one relating to the content of the treaty itself. First, polls reveal that voters felt uninformed. An Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll released a week before the referendum found that 35% of respondents chose the category "do not know/have no opinion" and that of the further 35% who would vote "no", most said that they would do so because they did not understand the treaty. Even among the remaining 30% of respondents who answered "yes", many would not be entirely conversant with the details of the treaty.

The reason for this may lie, in part, in a lacklustre information campaign and a combination of inaccuracy and sloganeering on both sides. Yet, second, there is the tendency of voters in Ireland (and elsewhere) to use referenda to bloody the nose of incumbent governments. Ireland's rising unemployment and slowing economy provided the electorate with reasons to exercise a protest vote. The fact that opposition party voters - whose leaders (with the exception of the nationalist Sinn Féin) supported the government's pro-treaty position - were more likely to vote "no" demonstrates the decisive role of domestic political sentiment. By contrast, supporters of parties inside the governing coalition were much more likely to vote "yes".

A third issue is that trust between voter and government is particularly low in Ireland at present. The recently retired taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern has been giving evidence before a tribunal of inquiry that - following months of denials and stonewalling responses - appears to contradict earlier accounts of his curious financial affairs. It is little wonder that Ahern's former colleagues who now lead the government find it difficult to convince the public that they, and not the "no" side, are telling the truth when they respond to charges that (for example) Lisbon will result in conscription into a standing European army, harmonised corporation taxes, euthanasia, or abortion on demand.

But the nature of the reform treaty itself is also to blame: it is complex and immune to simple explanation. The Lisbon treaty is essentially a series of amendments to the rules governing the technocratic structures of the European Union. It is understandable that this requires a script of some complexity, but this in turn puts the legislation at a further remove from the voter.

The path to renewal

These considerations lead us to the conclusion that, for Ireland, the supposed European "democratic deficit" is alive and well - but that its main source is the Dáil Éireann (the national parliament) rather than European Union institutions or decisions.

Three steps would help to address this domestic, Irish democratic deficit. The first is to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of European measures, large and small. If passed, the Lisbon treaty itself would have enhanced national parliaments' ability in this respect. With or without it, radical reform of domestic political institutions remains an urgent necessity.

At present, the Irish parliament is characterised by a strong executive, a highly disciplined whip, a weak committee system, and domination by representatives who focus on local and regional issues to the detriment of national and international concerns. The Dáil has no real input into the government's positions in EU negotiations, and directives are implemented with a minimum of debate and virtually no media attention. So, again, it is no real surprise that the Irish electorate views EU regulations, initiatives, and elections, as distant and confusing. EU policies must become national debates if national politics is to encompass the union.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the European Union's constitutional argument:

Simon Berlaymont, "What the European Union is" (23 June 2005)

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2007)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007) If EU legislation and government negotiating positions were subject to more vigorous scrutiny - preferably at the Dáil's committee level - the result would be to attract media attention and bring European Union issues directly into the lives of politically engaged citizens.

The second step is to overhaul the rules governing standards in public office in Ireland and the funding of the country's political parties. Much progress has been made here in light of numerous financial scandals (and resulting inquiries) in recent years; but more needs to be done to restore the confidence of a cynical and disinterested public in their elected representatives. A good start would be the public funding of political parties.

A third step might be considered if, but only if, the above two steps are successful in creating public confidence in domestic institutions and public representatives. This is that future institutional overhauls of a highly technical nature such as the Lisbon treaty are subject to parliamentary vote rather than national referenda. Irish citizens - like their counterparts across Europe - are unlikely to vote for something they do not understand, and are rightly disinterested in a treaty that is, undeniably, uninteresting. The status quo absolves the national parliament from the duty of scrutinising EU legislation, and places the duty in the hands of a public that cares little - and, for the moment at least, cares to know less.

The result of this third measure could in principle be an enhancement rather than a diminishment of democratic engagement. For if Ireland's parliament were in a public and even dramatic fashion to expand its capability to exercise oversight of European Union laws and directives - leading in turn to more heated political discussion of EU issues in the media and political worlds - there is no reason to doubt that voters will prove as well equipped and motivated to decide on EU matters as on national ones. As David Beetham has said in another context, the "democratic deficit" starts at home.

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