The Irish Referendum and the European Union

5 June 2008

The Irish Referendum and the European Union

 By Gwynne Dyer

Out of 27 countries in the European Union, only Ireland is holding a referendum on the new constitution. Sorry, it’s not a “constitution.” It’s just a “treaty,” because French and Dutch voters rejected the constitution back in 2005. Now they’ve repackaged it as the “Treaty of Lisbon” so other EU members no longer have to hold those pesky referendums — but the Irish, who have held six previous referendums on EU integration or expansion, are still going to hold a referendum on 12 June. And it looks like they will say “no.”

The main reason the Irish “no” voters give for rejecting the treaty is that they can’t understand it. They don’t realise that they aren’t supposed to understand it. The constitution that was rejected in 2005 was rewritten as the treaty of today precisely to get rid of any text that made it sound like a statement of principles. If it is just an administrative document, then no referendums are needed to get it ratified by EU member countries (except for Ireland).

Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who presided over the convention that wrote the original treaty, was brutally frank about what had been done in an article he wrote last October. The EU’s legal experts, he explained, “have taken the original (rejected) draft constitution, blown it apart into separate elements, and then attached them, one by one, to existing treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon is thus a catalogue of amendments. It is impenetrable for the public.”

For those who believed that the constitution was the necessary next step in building a united Europe, all the essential stuff is still there in the Treaty of Lisbon: “a stable presidency (that doesn’t rotate between countries every six months); a streamlined Commission; a Parliament with genuine legislative rights; a Foreign Minister…and the most advanced charter of fundamental rights in the world.”

Giscard d’Estaing’s words again, and for the exalted group of Euro-dreamers to which he belongs, that is enough reason to sneak it all past the actual voters. After all, everybody knows that the French and the Dutch voted no in 2005 because the EU was about to open membership talks with Turkey. The “no” was a protest vote that had nothing to do with the constitution, so it’s legitimate to change it into a treaty that they don’t have a vote on.

But nobody really knows what was in the minds of French and Dutch voters three years ago. There is certainly an unpleasant aura of elitism about the current proceedings: the voters got it wrong in 2005, so this time we’re not going to ask them. Except that they have to ask the Irish.

Ireland has done very well out of EU membership. It was EU subsidies, and access to the whole European market, that jump-started the Irish economic miracle of the past 20 years. But even before the recent downturn took the shine off Irish prosperity, Irish voters were sometimes recalcitrant about big projects for “expanding and deepening” the European Union.

There are and always have been two ways of looking at the European Union. One vision, favoured by the political elites who created it, would forge a new political entity out of the many nations of Europe that had spent centuries at one another’s throats. The EU might never end up with the cohesion and strong shared identity of the classic nation-state, but it would move steadily in that direction.

The other, more modest vision was of an economic union to assure shared prosperity, with some very valuable add-ons like democratic values, free movement of people, lasting peace in Europe and a somewhat larger voice in the world. All those things have been achieved in the most spectacular fashion — after all, more than half the EU’s members were dictatorships thirty years ago — and lots of people are quite content to stop there.

Irish voters complain about how incomprehensible the treaty is, and they are certainly right. British journalist Timothy Garton Ash spoke of it as resembling “the instruction manual for a forklift truck,” but few instruction manuals have 175 pages of text, 86 pages of accompanying protocols, a 25-page annexe, and a 26-page supplement containing 65 separate “declarations.” But we already know why it’s so complicated: the voters are not meant to understand it.

The other 26 EU member countries were simply going to ratify the new treaty in their legislatures, but if the Irish vote “no,” then the whole project to make the EU more like the Europe-wide state that the founders dreamt of founders for a second time in three years. Does this matter greatly? Perhaps not, for the EU has gone on functioning perfectly well under the old rules.

Since that first rejection in the French and Dutch referendums of 2005, it has passed several budgets, taken in two new members, seen three more countries join the euro zone, opened membership talks with Turkey, and agreed on the world’s most ambitious project for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You could argue that it works well enough as it is.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“Ireland…Union”; and “Irish…it”)

The Irish referendum is on 12 June.