Ireland’s unexpected no vote is the third rejection of European treaty reform in three years. There is little doubt that a certain level of dissatisfaction exists among Europe’s citizens, but this becomes all the more ironic when the people reject a document designed to address those very issues that they are dissatisfied with. So what is the underlying problem?
Why an Irish NO vote
Before assessing the solutions for this crisis, let’s try to pinpoint the various reasons for the Irish rejection. No doubt many Europeans across the continent will be wondering “how possibly could the fastest growing economy in Europe - the country which has clearly benefited the most from European integration suddenly slap us all back in the face?!”
As in France in 2005, the NO campaign claims to be exceptionally pro European
Well let’s ask the NO campaign. As in France in 2005, the NO campaign claims to be exceptionally pro European. “There is no doubt that Ireland’s future is in the EU” they say. “We are in favour of Europe, but not of this Treaty - we can do better than this”. Sound familiar?! Interestingly enough, most research carried out following the referendum shows that around 70% of no voters rejected Lisbon as they believed that Ireland could re-negotiate in Brussels and ’bring home a better deal’.
European Youth for an Irish YES - JEF Europe’s Ireland campaign team - spent two days in Dublin dispelling the myths of the No campaign. The team found Irish citizens to be particularly confused and badly informed about the issues surrounding the Lisbon Treaty. The No campaign had successfully stirred up the issues and created effective politics of fear. With an Irish YES campaign in disarray and incapable of getting their arguments across, people were left with no choice but to ’play safe’ and reject the Treaty.
Many of the arguments were around Irish neutrality and military spending, abortion, jobs, taxation and the economy. Most would say that these issues had little to do with he Lisbon Treaty, others would claim that Lisbon was so technical and related to decision making processes and voting systems with no obvious or clear theme, that it was difficult to explain to people and carry out a debate on it. Perhaps this is also why all other EU Governments decided not to hold a referendum for their ratification. What is obvious, is that the Irish No campaign succeeded - they knew exactly what the people wanted to hear.
Will you be voting in tomorrow’s referendum sir? I’ll be voting NO. We can’t allow Brussels to control and increase our taxes - they are already high enough as it is.
What is your opinion of Lisbon madam? I think we can do better than this. If we vote against we will be able to renegotiate and secure our interests.
Will you back the Treaty in today’s referendum? I’ve already voted no. Why are the other European states not having a say? Why are we the only ones voting? What happened to democracy?
Many of these comments purely echo the slogans of the No campaign and demonstrates the utter failure of the Irish YES to unite and deliver. We can therefore say, that the Irish rejection was principally a result of fear, misinterpretation of the Treaty, a weak YES campaign, the idea of future bargaining with Brussels and perhaps even a sense of ’power and responsibility’ as the only Member State holding a referendum, to ’stand up for democracy’. It is not - let’s be clear - a rejection of Irish EU membership.
A solution for Lisbon
The Irish decision should of course be respected and the EU should not ignore the result of the referendum. But equally, it is inconceivable that 2 million voters halt the process of European integration for 500 million Europeans. The Irish Government should assess the burning issues for Ireland and bring these issues forward to the European Council in the autumn. Meanwhile, the seven Governments which have still to ratify the Treaty should continue to do so. All EU Governments signed the Treaty on 13 December 2007 in Lisbon and they all have the responsibility to ensure that ratification is carried out in their countries - irrespective of the ratification outcomes of other states. It is not democratic that the ratification outcome in Ireland prevents all other Member States to have a say.
If all 26 Member States ratify the Lisbon Treaty, it will be up to the Irish Government to seek the necessary opt outs or amendments for the Irish Republic and subsequently re-present the new text to the people. After all, is that not what the Irish NO voters wanted? A re-negotiation?! This would allow Lisbon to come into force without too much delay. In the unlikely event that Ireland would reject Lisbon a second time, the 26 should implement the Treaty and allow Ireland to lead its inevitable “are we in or are we out” debate. This would have serious EU membership consequences for Ireland and possibly lead towards isolation, but with a re-negotiation achieved, it would be unlikely that a second rejection would materialise.
Long term solution - Majority voting and the European vanguard
It is starting to become evident that in a union of 27, and possibly a future union of 30 or more, decisions can no longer be taken by unanimity. Lisbon reduces unanimity and introduces more QMV into more policy areas. But unanimity needs to be scrapped especially with treaty reform. It is increasingly becoming impossible to keep all Member States satisfied, and the more the EU enlarges, the more unanimity will cause obstacles for European integration, preventing the EU to reform and move forward. We saw this with the rejection of the Constitution, and we see this now with Lisbon. In addition, there is not enough politicisation at the European level, and issues are purely debated on a national dimension - such as discussing abortion in Ireland during the Lisbon referendum - where is the connection exactly?! The reality however, is that it would be particularly unrealistic to assume that countries like the UK, Ireland and perhaps even Poland and Denmark would ever surrender their veto power and happily apply QMV to treaty reform or other more ’ambitious’ fields such as foreign policy or aspects of justice and home affairs. Any possible solution?
The Luxembourg Prime Minister - Jean Claude Juncker - has sparked the idea (though quite an old debate) of a multi speed Europe, or a core European vanguard composed of Member States who have absolutely no reservations with political European integration, to forge ahead and integrate further - with decisions being taken by QMV. It would be open to all Member States and would allow countries to join at different times; not pressurised to join at the same time as the initial group of countries.
A vanguard framework would allow countries to join the more ambitious political union only when they feel ready
Europe in fact, has never moved at the same speed - countries have taken the initiative to integrate in certain policy fields while others opted out - such as with the Euro or Schengen. A vanguard framework would allow countries to join the more ambitious political union only when they feel ready. Currently there is the expectation that all countries need to advance at the same speed, and this is often counterproductive. Those states like the UK, uncomfortable with a political union and perhaps only interested in a more economic partnership, would be able to sit in the ’outer core’ and allow more ambitious States like Belgium, Germany, Italy or Spain to move forward with political unification. As we have seen in the past - all you need is the initiative of a few - all the rest will eventually follow.
This article has aimed to address the wider issues surrounding the ratification of Lisbon in Ireland and propose an alternative solution to the integration deadlock. The Irish No vote proves how the EU is no longer capable of progressing and reforming with the current institutional and decision making mechanisms. The more the EU enlarges, the more difficult it becomes to satisfy each state and the more the race to the bottom is intensified.
The reality is that in the current EU framework, unanimity is here to stay, and the only effective solution to the stagnating integration process could be the creation of a European vanguard of Member States willing to move ahead together, leaving those who need more time, the necessary time to adapt and potentially seek approval from their citizens. We did it in 1957, why can’t we do it 50 years on?