Former Irish PM: ‘No’ vote would be ‘disastrous’

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In a wide-ranging interview, former Irish Taoiseach and current think-tank president Garret Fitzgerald spoke to EURACTIV about the referendum campaign, the potential consequences of an Irish ‘no’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty and the advantages of the text for both Ireland and other small member states of the EU.

Dr. Garret Fitzgerald served two terms as Irish Taoiseach during the 1980s. Currently the president of the Institute of International & European Affairs (a Dublin-based think tank), Dr. Fitzgerald is one of the leading voices calling for a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Let’s start with the Lisbon Treaty referendum. How are things looking on the ground in Ireland? 

Very undecided. The polls as usual are showing a considerable majority in favour [of the Lisbon Treaty], but that is not the issue. What matters is turnout. We have seen this before, during the first referendum on the Nice Treaty, when low voter turnout led to a ‘no’ vote. I think the groundswell against is more pronounced on this occasion. 

In other words, the greater the number of people that come out to vote, the more chance the referendum has of succeeding. 

Yes. There is no doubt that the ‘no’ campaign has been very active, and there has been no adequate response to that until the past fortnight. While the ‘yes’ campaign is good and does answer all the relevant points, it has come very late, and a lot of people have already been persuaded by the propaganda against the treaty. 

You mentioned the “propaganda” of the ‘no’ camp. Do you think their campaign has been run on reasonable grounds? 

No. Almost every statement made is incorrect, but has not been countered in time. For example, the claim that our veto in changes on direct tax could be overturned by the European Courts on competition grounds has no foundation, yet that is the claim the ‘no’ side is making in order to worry people. 

This and other issues have confused people greatly. 

So the ‘yes’ campaign could have done more to rebut this misinformation and “propaganda”? 

Yes, it could have been rebutted much more and much sooner. The government is rebutting now, but not always effectively. The material being produced by the government is good but it has come much too late, and ministers do not seem to have absorbed it and are not dealing with the particular issues very effectively. These add to a formidable list of problems which still leaves the result of the referendum in doubt. 

You are on the record as saying that Ireland has benefited more than any other country from EU membership. Based on that, do you feel an Irish rejection of the Treaty would be a selfish choice? 

It would be a lunatic choice! It would be an extraordinary, perverse and suicidal choice. Not alone have we been the greatest beneficiary of EU membership, we still are benefiting greatly. 

The greatest benefit to us has been the freeing of trade, as a result of which we had the Celtic Tiger. The ‘no’ side talks about loss of vetoes, but in truth we have kept all the vetoes we need in the key areas of trade negotiations, defense and taxation. 

Another example is the misinformation regarding the proposed institutional reform that will bring in rotating commissioners. The ‘no’ camp presents this reform as us ‘losing our seat at the Commission,’ whereas in reality we are going to be as absent from the Commission and on the same basis as any of the larger states. 

Even though Ireland is moving to being a net contributor to the EU budget, we are still benefiting greatly from membership of the Union. However, “eaten bread is always forgotten”. 

You have also stated that “Ireland has played a unique part” in the process that shaped the Lisbon Treaty. Can you tell us more? 

I understand it was our government that had climate change inserted in the treaty. It was our government that ensured that when the veto is replaced by QMV, the European Parliament must approve that. 

At the original convention, Irish MEPs did great work to strengthen the social provisions of the treaty. Also, Ireland took the lead among a group of 16 smaller countries to ensure that their interests were fairly represented, holding their own against the larger countries. (Former Irish Prime Minister) John Bruton challenged and took on Giscard d’Estaing when he tried to bully people to agree with his view. 

During the final Lisbon Treaty negotiations [when Ireland held the rotating EU presidency], Bertie Ahern went around to all 26 capitals to negotiate final changes to the treaty text and succeeded in getting it cleared when Berlusconi couldn’t. So there’s a huge Irish input there – it’s our treaty more than anybody else’s. We’ve got all the assurances we need, so we have no reason to vote against it. We’ve already had problems where the Dutch, French and Germans are annoyed at us about our tax opt-out, so to exacerbate that by voting against the treaty when we’ve got everything we want in it would be very damaging indeed. 

The big question: what would the consequences of a ‘no’ vote be for Ireland in the EU? 

Well, very damaging, but we don’t know precisely what those consequences would be. What would the other member states do? Are they going to allow the Lisbon Treaty reforms to be blocked by this or are they going to set up a community of 26 inside the community of 27, marginalising us? We don’t know. But I certainly don’t think they will lie down and just accept it. 

If our position [in the event of a ‘no’ vote] were motivated by a genuine clear-cut national interest – that I might understand – but when we’ve got all our national interests protected, to vote against would be hugely damaging. 

If we take the opposite view and assume there is an Irish ‘yes’ and eventual ratification of the treaty, what do you think of the new high-profile positions that will be created in the EU hierarchy? Do you foresee any potential problems in how they will relate to one another? 

I do see the case for having a president of the EU Council. This should give more continuity – something I never thought was terribly strong. The only problem is: the treaty creates a new foreign minister in charge of external relations, the High Representative. Supposing there’s a crisis somewhere – is the president going to leave it to the foreign minister or is he/she going to get involved too? 

In normal circumstances it should be fine because the president simply chairs the meetings of the EU Council, and looks after the agenda and so on. But if there’s a crisis somewhere in the world and the High Representative is dealing with it, will the president be happy to stay quiet and get on with the job of chairing meetings? I wonder a bit about that. 

The first person in a job like the EU Council President will be a huge influence on how it works out. It is a chairperson’s role but the quality of that chairmanship can affect the outcome. I think it’s important to have someone who is widely respected and who would add to the prestige of the Union, someone who would be listened to. 

Continuing on this theme: How has the idea of European leadership evolved in your political lifetime? 

The trouble is we all tend to think as time goes on that things were better before and I do feel that European leaders were better in the past, but whether that’s nostalgia or reality I don’t know. I don’t have the feeling that there are as many strong characters or as many people of strong commitment around as there used to be. 

Finally, with the European Parliament elections coming up next year, and turnout traditionally very low across the EU, what can be done to increase interest in the EU political sphere among citizens? 

It’s very hard. People’s interest in Europe may be aroused to a limited degree during referenda such as this, but then all that disappears again, and they unlearn everything they have learned during the campaign and we start again with the next one. It’s hard to keep people’s attention on the issues. 

In EP elections, at least in Ireland, campaigns seem to be based on gaining local advantages rather than debating European issues. It’s not easy to change that in a country where localism is such a dominant feature. 

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