Ireland shows EU establishment the red card

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The citizens of the only EU country to hold a popular vote on the Lisbon Treaty have rebuffed the Union’s entire political class with a resounding ‘no’ to the reform text, throwing the EU into yet another political crisis.

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. 

While many are put out that the whole EU project could be stalled by such a small number, many pro-referendum campaigners argue that the opinion of the “silent majority” had not really been taken into account. They say that had referenda been held in several other EU countries, the results would probably have been largely similar. 

A vote against ‘eurobabble’ 

Perhaps the biggest paradox, highlighted by Ireland’s leaders, is that the vast majority of Irish citizens are not anti-European and largely acknowledge that their country has benefited hugely from EU membership. 

However, after a one-month campaign marred by the resignation of former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern over corruption allegations, a majority of the Irish voted 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. 

In an apparent failure to understand the real problem behind the vote – the lack of communication between Brussels’ ivory towers and Europe’s citizens – EU leaders rushed to make strong statements and give advice on the best way out of the crisis. 

While many of these leaders, including Commission President José Manuel Barroso, were claiming until the very last day that “there is no plan B” and the decision of the Irish people would be respected, they are now saying “the treaty is not dead” and expect the Irish Government “to assess how to proceed”. 

But the vote has thrown the Union into a state of confusion, with several leaders voicing contradictory ideas, despite belonging to the same political family or even the same government. For example, while France’s Europe Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet made clear that “the most important thing is that the ratification process must continue in the other countries,” his prime minister, François Fillon, announced that he considered the Lisbon Treaty “dead”. 

With the Slovenian Presidency drawing to a close, it will be now 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. 

Unless another, more original solution emerges… 

Excluding Ireland? 

One of the most radical ideas being expressed is that Ireland should leave the EU. But Jouyet has dismissed such ‘fantasies’, saying “we cannot take a country out of Europe that has been there for 35 years”. He instead suggested that an alternative legal arrangement for “a specific type of co-operation” now had to be found, which would allow the rest of Europe to move on. If Ireland were left in the freezer while Europe advanced, it could be the makings of an “à la carte” Europe. 

Ratification delayed at the very least 

At the forthcoming EU summit on June 19-20, the UK, France and Germany are all expected to express their desire to continue the ratification process, as are the Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden. This means all 26 other EU members will have ratified the treaty by the end of the year. The case of the Czech Republic could nevertheless prove problematic, as the ratification has already been delayed there (EURACTIV 16/06/08). 

EU leaders are also expected to ask Ireland how it intends to proceed. That would put the pressure on Dublin to seek certain changes, opt-outs or assurances on the treaty text so that it could then put it to a second referendum. Or Ireland could find a way to allow the others to proceed with the key reforms without it. But there is also speculation that the government may have already resigned by the time of the summit. 

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 put into question with 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 after 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. 

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. 

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering also expressed his disappointment over the vote, but nevertheless called for the ratification process to continue. 

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs 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". 

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 European 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. 

But German Socialist MEP and chair of 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," he said, criticising the Council and its member states for not only failing to develop an effective communication strategy on the EU but also for making "special efforts" to keep the European Parliament isolated. The Irish government's referendum campaign was "late, defensive and complicated", he lamented. 

Speaking to EURACTIV, the ALDE spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs in the ParliamentUK 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, the co-presidents of the European Greens 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, the 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". 

The Lisbon Treaty emerged as the EU's 'Plan B' for an institutional overhaul after its ill-fated Constitution was rejected in public referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005, throwing the EU into a major political crisis (see LinksDossier on the Constitutional Treaty). 

A key factor in the Constitution's defeat was the lack of political communication on the benefits of the text and of the EU as a whole. 

At the time, a "period of reflection" on the future of Europe was launched with a view to reconnecting citizens with the European project. The process included the launch by the Commission of a "Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate," which called on member states to start a debate with citizens on the future of the EU (EURACTIV 14/10/05).

After two years of deadlock, EU leaders were finally able to agree on a watered-down text in October 2007, which was consequently signed at a special summit in Lisbon on 13 December 2007 (EURACTIV 14/12/07). 

The aim was for all countries to ratify the text before 2009. All the member states except Ireland (due to constitutional obligations) opted for parliamentary ratification rather than the riskier option of a referendum, despite protests from the text's opponents. 

Thus far, 18 out of 27 member states have approved the treaty. 

  • 16 June 2008: EU Foreign Affairs Ministers Meeting to debate the repercussions of the 'no' vote. 
  • 18 June 2008: The UK House of Lords expected to approve the Treaty at third reading. 
  • 19/20 June 2008: EU heads of state and government to meet in Brussels. 
  • 1 July 2008: France takes over the EU Presidency. 

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