Pity Bryan Cowen. Last June Ireland voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty to reform the European Union by 53% to 47%, the only member state to have done so. The government has proposed holding a second referendum later this year. Another defeat would be incalculable in terms of our loss of influence, standing and friends in Europe at a time when we need the EU more than ever. This is one vote the Taoiseach cannot afford to lose.
Ireland joined what has evolved into the European Union in 1973. As an institution the European Union is far from perfect. It is complex. It has evolved from an initial six countries to the current membership of twenty seven. It is unique. Most of the countries of Europe, including traditional enemies, have come together to form a multinational community of nations. The EU has developed a common currency, the Euro. A European Parliament has powers of approval of the EU budget.
However, it is not a United States of Europe. Countries retain their sovereignty in most areas, including taxation, and national governments continue to function . Areas where countries have agreed to pool sovereignty are administered by a supranational body called the Commission. Decision making and debate occurs in the Council of Ministers, with countries voting according to a formula based on size and population. The EU is continuing to evolve and to develop policies to meet the challenges its members face today. Its institutions badly need streamlining and overhauling, hence the Lisbon Treaty.
Arguably, the current financial and economic crisis in Ireland will pass, particularly in the context of an international recovery. Public spending can be brought under control, through higher taxes (sooner rather than later), cuts in government spending across the board as well as a (regrettable but necessary) pruning or postponement of much of the capital projects planned for the next five years. There will be much pain but it can be done.
The effort could all be wasted, however, by another No vote on Lisbon. A somewhat similar situation occurred in 2001, when the Nice Treaty referendum – essential for the major enlargement of the EU – was unexpectedly defeated in a very low turnout (34%). .The issue was put again and carried comfortably by 63% to 37% the following year, based on some assurances and guarantees given to Ireland by her partners. However, ominously, the number voting No actually increased second time around.
Winning a new referendum is going to be an uphill struggle The turnout last June was 53%, considerably higher than in Nice Two, with many more voting No and fewer voting Yes. This has removed the 2001 argument that a low turnout in some way justified a re-run, given the issues and the feeling that the electorate took its eye off the ball. Next time also there will be no moral pressure (a vote for enlargement) and no tangible economic benefit from voting Yes. Ireland’s recent prosperity and the entry of a slew of poorer countries has ensured there will be no more European monies flowing into Ireland.
Even the massed support of most of the Irish establishment for a Yes vote will give Brian Cowen little comfort.. Current opinion polls are showing a Yes majority , but we have been here before. In the run up to last June, and again in 2001, there appeared to be a comfortable majority in favour. An inept campaign, almost as bad as that of 2001, contributed to last June’s defeat. The government was wrong footed from the start by the Treaty’s opponents, who, well marshalled and well financed, seized the initiative early on and never lost it. Will this time will be different?
The benefits Ireland has derived from EU membership have been immense. Economically Europe has provided markets for our exports, subsidised our farmers and provided billions to develop our infrastructure. Our success in attracting US and other foreign investment, with the attendant jobs and prosperity, would not have been possible without Europe. Politically Europe has given Ireland an independent and respected voice at the European table. and has provided valuable assistance in resolving the Northern Ireland problem.
Ireland has enhanced her identity in Europe. When Ireland joined the then EC in 1973, our living standards were half those of our partners; 35 years on we have caught up. The changes in Irish society have been profound and positive. Ireland’s population has increased, emigration ended and an enhanced national self-confidence has emerged. Within the EU Ireland has been perceived as a success and a role model for the new poorer members. Every opinion poll shows a large majority in favour of EU membership.
Why then the No vote? One major pointer was that much of the electorate felt ill informed about what Lisbon would mean, and were frustrated by the size, complexity and basic unreadability of the treaty document .The No Lobby attacked this opaqueness effectively, with their most articulate spokesman calling for a constitution like that of the USA as he theatrically binned the Lisbon Treaty document. There were also complaints that Ireland would lose out in terms of influence under the new voting arrangements in the EU’s governing body – the Council (true, but how could Ireland expect to hold its share when other countries were also making compromises to absorb more equitably the new members?).
The proposal in the draft treaty that Ireland, again like every other member state, would lose its designated member on a smaller EU Commission, (one of the unique European institutions) for five years out of fifteen, excited particular opposition and became almost totemic. Other issues causing disquiet included fears that Ireland might have to give up its favourable low rate of company taxation, which had brought much inward investment, and that its military neutrality might be compromised.
Another factor, difficult to quantify, was a degree of public disillusionment , a sense that the good times associated with EU membership were over and that those at the top were out of touch. The worsening economic situation (grasped by the public before the politicians), the huge influx and impact of foreign workers (from nil to 10% of the workforce in less than a decade), the drying up of European money, and doubts about where the EU was heading in future (with further expansion planned into the Balkans), all contributed to this unease. The failure of the Yes side to address these issues adequately together with the unchallenged assertion that a No vote would have no repercussions for Ireland invited the negative outcome.
Since then the Government, with some assistance from Europe, has attempted an “Operation Stable Door”. The Irish Commissioner has been salvaged. Solemn and “legally binding” assurances or declarations on some of the other problematic issues for Ireland have been promised by our partners. The Government can point to these as evidence that Europe has come to meet us to justify putting the issue to the people again. With the economy in freefall our need for friends in Europe, which constitutes our comfort blanket, has never been greater. Whether the voters will agree remains to be seen. There is a dangerous argument gaining currency that Europe will have to bend to our wishes, that the other 26 can do nothing without us. These are Interesting Times. I would not bet the family silver on that outcome!