The Irish EU Treaty referendum

Irish voters rebuffed the EU’s entire political class with a resounding ‘no’ to the draft Lisbon Treaty, throwing the Union into yet another political crisis.

The 'Treaty of Lisbon' was officially signed by EU heads of state and government at a summit in the Portuguese capital on 13 December 2007 (EURACTIV 14/12/07). 

It aims to streamline decision-making in the enlarged EU by introducing voting reforms in the Council, reducing the size of the Commission and strengthening the role of national parliaments. It also creates the new posts of Council President and High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. 

In order to enter into force, the Treaty must be ratified by all 27 member states. By the time of the Irish referendum 18 countries had already ratified the Treaty (EURACTIV 12/06/08). The original design was for ratification by all 27 countries to be completed by the end of 2008.

A total of 53.4% of Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, with just 46.6% voting in its favour. Turnout was not as low as initially predicted, with 53.1% of the electorate turning up at the urns. 

With a total of 862,415 votes against, the Lisbon Treaty, which would have affected all the EU's 495 million citizens, was effectively rejected by 0.175% of the bloc's population, throwing the EU into an existential crisis. 

A lone referendum 

Ireland was the only EU country to require ratification of the Lisbon Treaty through a nationwide referendum. This is due to a 1987 ruling by its Supreme Court which stipulates that significant changes to the European Union treaties require an amendment to the Irish Constitution (which is always done by means of a referendum) before being ratified by the State. 

In all other EU members, national parliaments are dealing with ratification. No major obstacles are expected, except perhaps in the UK, where although the parliamentary ratification procedure is advancing, Tory millionaire Stuart Wheeler has won the right to open a High Court review into whether the UK Government should hold a referendum on the Treaty following its earlier promise to hold one on the since-defunct EU Constitution. The legal dispute was heard by the Court on 9-10 June, but judges have reserved ruling until a later date. 

An awkward history 

Ireland had already rejected an earlier attempt to adapt the European institutions to their enlarged membership. Its voters rejected the Nice Treaty in a 2001 referendum. 

The move sparked an EU-wide crisis which continued until the Treaty was put to a referendum again 16 months later, when it successfully passed the test.

The paradox of the 'no' vote

Ireland has gained a lot from its EU membership. When Ireland joined the EU in 1973, it was the poorest country in the Community of Nine, as it was then. But the country soon became a model of success.

In 1987 Irish GDP stood at just 69% of the Community average. Now Ireland is up there among the leaders, with GDP running at 146% of the EU average, a figure surpassed only by Luxembourg.

However there are signs that the economic boom is coming to an end. The close connections of the country with the battered US economy and the pressure being put on its exports by the strong euro could have had a negative impact on voters.

Furthermore, despite assurances from the Commission that the new Treaty will not affect countries' tax sovereignty, there were concerns among the business community that the text would open the door to EU-wide tax harmonisation, threatening Ireland's low corporate rate (12.5%), which is considered a key factor in the country's economic success.

Irish voters also feared that their country would gradually become involved in an EU defence policy, losing its neutrality (EURACTIV 10/06/08), while the concerns of Irish farmers over the EU's trade policy were overheated by European politicians ahead of the referendum (EURACTIV 10/06/08). 

In the end, it would appear that the Irish also tired of a 'yes' campaign marred by the resignation of former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern over corruption allegations, and that a majority of the 'no' votes were directed against the 'eurobabble' proffered by the 'yes' camp and an almost unreadable text, which even Ahern's successor Brian Cowen admitted he had not read. 

The EU thrown into confusion

The Irish 'no' vote on the Lisbon Treaty has again thrown the Union into a state of confusion, with leaders voicing contradictory and sometimes strange ideas. The most visible contradiction is between those who consider the treaty to be dead (with Czech leaders the most vocal in this respect) (EURACTIV 16/06/08) and mainstream politicians, who would prefer ratification to continue in the remaining eight countries as planned in the hope that a solution will be also found for Ireland.

With the Slovenian Presidency drawing to a close, it will now be mainly in the hands of the incoming French Presidency to lead the search for a way out. Ironically, it was France that threw the EU into a similar state of chaos when its own citizens rejected the now-defunct Constitution in 2005. 

The intention of the French appears to be to ensure that ratification continues. In the meantime, a re-run of the referendum could take place, as happened after the Irish first rejected the EU's Nice Treaty in 2001. 

Other, more original solutions could emerge, like introducing new opt-outs to keep the Irish electorate happy, or changing key provisions of the Treaty, like the number of commissioners. Irish voters had expressed concern over the possible loss of their commissioner if the EU executive body were to be slimmed down according to the Lisbon Treaty. Keeping the 'one commissioner per country' principle was aired as a possible compromise solution.

Excluding Ireland? 

One of the most radical ideas being expressed is that Ireland should leave the EU. The Romanian opposition Social Democrats proposed that Ireland should hold a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, except that this time the 'no' vote would be tied to the country's exclusion from the Union. A little less radical is the idea of setting up "a specific type of co-operation" with Ireland, which would allow the rest of Europe to move on. 

Just like the UK, Denmark and Sweden, Ireland has already negotiated opt-outs in certain sensitive policy areas, including from the Schengen agreement on passport-free travel. And, with regard to the Lisbon Treaty, it had already negotiated a future opt-out from any decisions in the sector of Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters taken by qualified majority voting rather than unanimity. 

But if Ireland were left in the freezer while Europe advanced, it could also be the makings of an "à la carte" Europe.

Towards a weaker EU 

If the EU fails to find a quick way out of the crisis, it is likely to be weakened internationally, notably in its dealings with powers such as Russia and Iran. Indeed, a key aim of the new Treaty was to lend more credibility to the EU as a political heavyweight in the international arena. 

The Lisbon Treaty foresees the establishment of a permanent EU Council President and an External Action Service as well as a strengthening of the role of the EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. 

All this is now brought into question following the Irish 'no' vote, which also has implications for the enlargement process of the EU. Indeed, the Treaty also sought to address the bloc's capacity to integrate new members. 

Nevertheless, Europe will not suddenly collapse, since it has been governed successfully by the Nice Treaty even since the enlargement to 27 members. 

What is really at stake is whether the European political class will understand the citizens' message or make the situation even more difficult ahead of European elections in mid-2009. 

Timeline of past Irish EU referenda 

Despite numerous debates as to whether or not each and every successive EU treaty has been sufficiently far-reaching to justify a constitutional amendment, Ireland has already conducted six referenda related to its EU membership. 

One of these took place before the state joined the European Communities, as the so-called "Third Amendment" was necessary for its accession (1972 referendum). Then came the Single European Act (1987), the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the Amsterdam Treaty (1998), the first Nice Treaty referendum (2001) and the second one (2002). 




Total poll

For (%)

Against (%)

10 May 1972

European Communities


903,439 (50.7%)

724,836 (84.6%)

131,430 (15.6%)

26 May 1987

Single European Act


1,085,304 (44.1%)

755,423 (69.9%)

324,977 (30.1%)

18 June 1992

Maastricht Treaty


1,457,219 (57.3%)

1,001,076 (69.1%)

448,655 (30.9%)

22 May 1998

Amsterdam Treaty


1,543,930 (56.2%)

932,632 (61.7%)

578,070 (38.3%)

7 June 2001

Nice Treaty


997,836 (34.8%)

453,461 (46.1%)

528,478 (50.4%)

19 October 2002

Nice Treaty


1,446,588 (49.5%)

906,317 (62.9%)

534,887 (37.1%)

12 June 2008

Lisbon Treaty


1,621,037 (53.13%)

725,451 (46.6%)

862,415 (53.4%)


European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said it was "clear" that the result should not be seen as a vote against the EU, adding that he expects Ireland to continue to play its part within the EU. He dismissed calls from some quarters to isolate Ireland, stressing: "The voice of the Irish does not matter less than the German or the French."

He highlighted the "joint responsibility" of all 27 member states in addressing the situation and said a "joint decision" would be taken at the EU Summit next week. 

In the meantime, he called on the EU to deliver on "issues like growth and jobs, social cohesion, energy security, climate change and fighting inflation". "Working together in the EU remains the best way to deal with the challenges affecting Europeans today," he said. 

Irish Commissioner Charlie McCreevy stressed that the vote should not be interpreted as a sign of Irish ingratitude but as a vote against "a myriad of other issues," including rising food and oil prices, an economic downturn and the threat of rising unemployment. "There will be those who won't understand and think we have forgotten all the benefits Ireland has obtained from its membership of the EU. But that would be a wrong interpretation. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Irish people want to be fully engaged participants in the European Union," he said. 

He downplayed the Irish 'no', saying the EU would "not grind to a halt" as a result and pointing out that his country was "not alone in being unable to secure a popular endorsement of a European Treaty". "As politicians this is something we need to learn from," he concluded. 

Former European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering stated that the results of the Irish referendum confront the EU "with one of the most difficult challenges in its history". He called on the EU summit on 19-20 June to "take the appropriate steps to make the reform Treaty a reality". "The ratification process must continue without reservation. We call upon the Irish Government to submit proposals as to how we can jointly progress beyond this difficult phase in European politics," the Parliament President said in a written statement, adding that the goal is to see the Treaty enter into force before the June 2009 European elections.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin blamed a lack of information for the result, saying there was a sense that the treaty "just didn't register" among citizens and the 'no' vote demonstrated a persistent "disconnection between Europe and its people". 

Czech President Vaclav Klaus called the Irish referendum result a "victory of freedom and reason" and said "ratification cannot continue". His view was echoed in the Czech Senate. The Lisbon Treaty ratification process has already been slowed down in the Czech Republic, where at present, the Czech Constitutional Court is analysing the treaty at the request of the Senate, the upper house of the Czech Parliament, in a move initiated by the governing Civic Democratic Party (ODS). The eurosceptic, right-wing, neo-liberal ODS of Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek seems concerned that the Czech EU Presidency, starting on 1 January 2009, will be overshadowed by the future permanent EU Council President. 

Former Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald expressed his surprise that "the 'no' vote is far higher than we had expected or hoped for". He said he feared the consequences for Ireland in the EU were "not good". 

"We'll see how other countries react and then respond. Nobody can say exactly what will happen at this stage," he said, adding that "it'll be quite a while before this particular fog clears". 

Speaking just two weeks before his country takes over the EU Presidency, France's EU Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet stressed the importance of proceeding with the ratification process in other countries. "Then we shall see with the Irish what type of legal arrangement could be found," he said, pointing to the fact that he believes the Treaty is not dead. 

The UK government has already signalled that it will continue the parliamentary ratification process, as have Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden. 

Meanwhile, German Socialist MEP and chair of the Parliament's constitutional affairs committee Jo Leinen lashed out not only at the Irish, but the entire European establishment for being incapable of communicating with citizens. 

"Communicating Europe is a disaster," Leinen said at a press conference in the European Parliament held before the results of the referendum were known. He lashed out at the Council, which failed, in his words, to develop a common communication strategy of the European institutions and has made special efforts to keep the Parliament isolated. "The Council says communication is the duty of the member countries. But when the countries do nothing, or too little, nobody can do something about it," he went on to say. Then he attacked the Irish Government for the way it had conducted the referendum campaign, saying it was "late, defensive and complicated".

Speaking to EURACTIV, ALDE spokesperson for constitutional affairs in the Parliament, UK MEP Andrew Duff, said the results were no surprise to him as "the whole pro-EU campaign in Ireland was a real mess" and "completely unprofessional" with political in-fighting. 

While he expected the UK House of Lords to complete ratification next week, he said this would only bring a temporary "moral lift" before the bloc falls into "deep paralysis with no exit strategy". Indeed, he added, "the current situation is worse than in 2005 when the French and the Dutch rejected the Constitution, because the Lisbon Treaty was already the EU's Plan B". 

Monica Frassoni  and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-presidents of the European Greens/EFA  group in the Parliament, blamed the referendum tool itself for the crisis, saying: "The Irish 'no' has once again demonstrated that national referenda are not an adequate instrument to decide European questions." 

"It is not truly democratic that less than a million people can decide the fate of almost half a billion Europeans," they commented. Looking to the future, they said the EU could not go on under the Nice Treaty rules, saying EU member states would have to choose if they wanted "a more integrated Europe or if they opt to be members of little more than a free trade area". 

They suggested "a short Constitution focusing on selected points that are understandable and relevant to citizens". This, they said, could for example include the Charter of Fundamental Rights, more democratic decision-making procedures and more instruments for positive policies, in a text that would be put to European citizens in a Europe-wide referendum on the same day as the European elections. 

But the leader of the EU-critical UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage on the other hand demanded that the implementation of the Treaty be stopped immediately. 

"The third reading of the treaty in the House of Lords next week must be halted because the project now has no legitimacy," he insisted, pointing out that "the only people to have a say on the Treaty have kicked it into the long grass". 

He accused those that attempted to "simply try to ignore" the Irish 'no' as they did the French and Dutch results, of being little more than "EU extremists". 

Francis Wurtz, president of the Parliament's GUE/NGL Group, argued along the same lines, saying he welcomed "with enthusiasm the result of the Irish referendum because, without this kind of jolt, there is no chance that the debate can open up about what must change in the orientations and structures of the current European Union". 

  • 13 Dec. 2007: EU leaders signed the new EU treaty at a special summit in Lisbon. 
  • 13 May 2008: Referendum campaign started in Ireland for the Lisbon Treaty. Up till then, 13 EU countries had ratified the Lisbon Treaty. 
  • 12 June 2008: Ireland voted 'no' to the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. 
  • 19-20 June 2008: European Council discussed situation following the Irish referendum.
  • 11 December 2008: EU leaders agreed on a package of Irish demands, paving the way for a second referendum (EURACTIV 12/12/08).
  • 24 June 2009: EURACTIV breaks the story that the second referendum will be held on 2 October 2009 (EURACTIV 24/06/09).
  • 2 Oct. 2009: Second referendum.

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