Ireland's "no" vote had little to do with the EU. But one way or another, the treaty will be enactedby / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 of the common agricultural policy, posed as a friend to Irish farmers long enough to secure half their votes for his campaign.) Libertas and other such groups specialise in spreading untruths by internet: that the EU would be able to imprison three-year olds for educational purposes, reinstate the death penalty, legalise abortion, conscript Irish into a European army, impose taxes by majority vote, force in floods of immigrants, undermine worker’s rights—all hogwash, of course.
Consider foreign and defence policy. Opponents of Lisbon skilfully made it seem as if nearly a century of Dublin’s neutrality was threatened. In fact, the treaty simply seconded a small subset of national diplomats into a modest European diplomatic corps, permitted some very circumscribed voting and consolidated the existing EU bureaucracy under a single co-ordinating position worthy of Tony Blair rather than Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief. Any EU defence decision would remain unanimous, and would have to be pursued using coalitions of willing national forces rather than any “EU army.” (Were that not enough, Ireland received an additional legal opt-out, explicitly recognising its constitutional provision on neutrality.) And since neither defence nor foreign policy is an “exclusive” EU matter, member states remain free to pursue unilateral policies, even contrary to EU goals.
Make the most of political discontent. The main thing working to the advantage of opponents is that, in the absence of genuine public concern about Europe, voters use EU referendums to vent their frustration with national issues. We do not yet have detailed data on the Irish vote, but in the 2005 French and Dutch referendums, not only did no one vote on anything to do with the EU constitution but less than a third voted on any concrete issue to do with the EU at all. The fact that the sitting Irish government was undergoing an embarrassing leadership transition, with Bertie Ahern stepping down to avoid corruption charges, surely damaged pro-treaty forces.
The irony of the Irish backlash is that it takes place at a time when Europe has never been more successful and secure. Over the past decade, the EU has expanded from 15 to 27 members, introduced a single currency, acted in a unified manner to help resolve disputes in places from Lebanon to Kosovo, extended the Schengen border-free zone to much of eastern Europe and rekindled its economic growth. EU enlargement has emerged as the most cost-effective tool for spreading peace and security in the western world. One need only glance at Iraq to see Europe’s relative virtues.
The current impasse is the result of a decision taken in 2001 to cast minor institutional reforms as a grand constitutional document. The invocation of idealistic Euro-constitutionalist rhetoric straight out of the 1950s federalist movement led only to disinterest, disbelief and eventually distrust among voters—who couldn’t understand why such a fuss was being made about modest proposals. The resulting PR disaster was a self-inflicted wound by European politicians.
But sooner or later the modest content of the treaty will be enacted, one way or another. Euro-pragmatists have the upper hand in every capital. They are already speaking of various complex legal expedients. Eighteen members have already ratified the document and the other eight, even Britain, are likely to do so. They will then move ahead on foreign policy co-operation and institutional reform, with or without the Irish. It will not be as clean as it might have been with Dublin’s support, but as the process of enlargement demonstrates, the EU succeeds by muddling through.