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…
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.