Ireland's "no" vote had little to do with the EU. But one way or another, the treaty will be enactedby Andrew Moravcsik / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
The Irish referendum result—like the French and Dutch results in 2005—was not a rejection of the treaty of Lisbon. The outcome tells us almost nothing about views of Europe. Instead, it tells us a lot about referendums.
Polling evidence suggests that the Irish public, as in France and the Netherlands, overwhelmingly support the substantive content of the Lisbon treaty. (The only real controversy in Ireland was over small-country “voice” in voting weights and the number of commissioners.) This is why every political party in Ireland, except for one wing of Sinn Féin, supported it.
The treaty essentially ratified the status quo. It contained no grand ideas—nothing like the single currency underlying Maastricht in 1991 or the single market that preceded it in 1986. The major elements were a slightly strengthened co-ordinating apparatus for foreign policy, a rebalancing of voting weights, an elected president to replace the revolving one and carefully circumscribed majority voting in a few areas like sport and energy.
So why did the Irish reject the treaty? Referendums are poor indicators of public sentiment—particularly on issues of secondary concern to voters. They are easily captured by small groups armed with cash, a website and intensely committed supporters. In every European country, this core of Eurosceptic opposition to the treaty is found on the extremist fringes of the right and the left. To win referendums, however, such extremists must capture centrist voters. To do that, they have to direct debate away from, in this case, the treaty of Lisbon’s banal content. Three tactics assure their success.
Exploit voter ignorance. Nearly a third of Irish “no” voters told pollsters that they opposed the treaty because they were ignorant of its content. One popular slogan ran: “If you don’t know, vote no!” The very modesty of the Lisbon treaty’s content worked against its passage. It is quite rational for the average person to know and care little about Europe. Just compare the importance of Kosovo recognition or chemical industry standards with bread and butter national issues like tax, education, health and immigration. Even in Britain, only 4 per cent of citizens consider anything connected with Europe an “important” issue.
Spread misinformation. In a context of ignorance, opponents can misstate the content of the treaty faster than their misstatements can be refuted. The major Irish instrument was Libertas, an anti-treaty group funded by anti-tax millionaire Declan Ganley. (Ganley, a militant opponent…