After the Irish referendum

The ‘No’ vote in the Irish referendum held last June was generally received with great disappointment among Spanish political elites, mass media and public. The main newspapers’ headlines even highlighted with some overstatement that the results of the voting in Ireland meant the “worst crisis ever in the EU”[1] and that the integration process was, as a consequence of that, “close to an abyss”[2]. Of course, all analysts and most citizens, bearing in mind the unanimity requirement for European treaties ratification among member countries, realised that the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty faced a serious setback and that a new period of political uncertainty – coinciding with the increasing signals of economic crisis – had commenced in Europe.
The somewhat deceitful idea that only 862,415 Irish voters had blocked the political will of 500 million people all around Europe was particularly stressed and, as a natural result of this viewpoint, some commentators supported the idea of rethinking unanimity among the member states, blaming it was an unsuitable procedure for reforming treaties.[3] On the other hand, the referendum was also interpreted as a manifestation of the divorce between public opinion and politicians since the five most important Irish parties had recommended supporting the Treaty but yet 53 percent of people voted against. That is to say, EU decision makers and not the particular electorate in Ireland would be guilty for pretending, after the constitutional crisis caused by the French and Dutch referenda in 2005, that they had a solution; an elitist ‘plan B’, called Lisbon Treaty, whose success required to avoid direct popular ratification. Thus, Irish people – who had necessarily to ratify the reform by referendum because of the interpretation of a constitutional clause that the Irish Supreme Court decided in the 1970s – would have just realised the imposture, the non-existent cloth of the EU; perhaps behaving naïvely and inconveniently but nevertheless telling the truth about the current distance of the European integration process and the citizens.[4] In fact Spaniards, when asked last April whether the EU cares about their citizens, also evidenced some frustration believing that the EU does not listen to its citizens, and that it listens only to biggest countries such as France.[5]

Anyhow, the main concern of the Spanish political elites after the Irish negative response was to avoid the domino effect of a chain reaction in other countries which had not yet ratified. The socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who had been re-elected for a second term after the parliamentary elections held last March, rejected any substantial renegotiation of the Treaty or any alteration in its ratification calendar. The Spanish government showed its full support to possible solutions that the following French EU Presidency may propose[6] and officially maintained the objective of an entry into force next January 2009 or, at the latest, before the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for next June 2009.
The Spanish lower chamber (Congreso de los Diputados) actually voted the ratification only two weeks after the Irish referendum, on 26 June, and the Senate did it as well on 15 July, thus finishing very fast the Spanish parliamentary ratification of the Treaty.[7] 322 out of 350 deputies in the Spanish Congress voted ’Yes’, only 6 voted ’No’, 2 did not vote and 20 were absents. In the Higher Chamber, 232 senators voted for the Treaty and only 6 did it against.[8] Spain, therefore, did not fall in the temptation of postponing the process, even if the government had been previously criticised by the opposition and conservative media for a too early ratification of the Constitutional Treaty at the beginning of 2005 with the direct intervention of the Spanish people in a referendum that became futile some months after, when France and the Netherlands stopped the ratification.[9] On the one had, the experience of a previous referendum helped the Spanish government to claim that it already enjoyed popular legitimacy to ratify despite the Irish result. On the other hand, the disappointment of having been a premature ratifier of the Constitution in 2005 – with involvement of the citizens in vain –, may have recommended a postponement as Poland, the Czech Republic or Germany have done in a way or another. Nevertheless, the calendar was not altered in Spain.
Regarding the possible solutions to the Irish problem, the Prime Minister stated that ”the result of the Irish referendum was certainly not good news, but Spain confronted it with certain clear ideas. The people of Ireland have expressed themselves in a democratic way, which we respect. This is true. However, regardless of any legal considerations on the consequences of the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland must understand that its ‘No’ to an agreement reached after long and complex negotiations cannot simply halt the desire of the vast majority of member states to move towards a greater degree of integration in order to be in a better position to confront the challenges of the 21st century. This means being aware that we respect the majority opinion of the Irish people, but it also means that the decision of most Europeans of wanting more Europe must also be respected”.[10] Then, he added that it was still possible to move forwards together and that, even it was premature to do it, he had no fear to talk about possible exceptions, different speeds or statuses within the Union, or enhanced cooperation. For his part, Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the conservative Popular Party considered the performance of the Spanish government very disappointing for criticising instead of helping the Irish people but, nonetheless, the Spanish opposition backed the plans of the government to go ahead in Spain and supported that the ratification process had to be continued in all member states.[11]

Finally, the discussions in Spanish media and among Spanish political actors about the real implications for the EU integration process of the Irish referendum have become progressively realistic and cautious. The Spanish general public, when asked whether they thought that the Irish ’No’ to the Lisbon Treaty was a crisis for the EU, showed division between 51 percent of those who believed it marked the start of a new crisis in the EU, and almost 40 percent disagreeing with this statement. Furthermore, 61 percent believe the ratification process should continue, while only one in four Spaniards think it should stop. At the same time, a majority (57 percent) also think that after the Irish ‘No’, the Treaty should be revised, as was done after the failure of the French and Dutch referendums.[12] The Union is not probably in its worst crisis but the government, the parties, and the experts underline the need of overcoming this uncertainty; thinking not only in Ireland but also in the other countries which have not yet ratified.

[1] El País, 14 June 2008.

[2] El Mundo, 14 June 2008.

[3] For example: Carlos Closa. 2008. After Ireland: Referendum and Unanimity (Elcano Institute ARI, 62/2008), available under: (last access: September 30, 2008).

[4] José Ignacio Torreblanca, “El emperador desnudo“ [“The naked emperor“, after famous H.C. Andersen’s tale The Emperor's New Clothes], El País, 16 June 2008.

[5] See 17th wave of the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute (April 2008), available under: (last access: September 30, 2008).

[6] See the Prime Minister’s address in the Parliamentary Journal of Debates (Diario de Sesiones del Congreso de los Diputados, IX Legislatura), 18th Plenary Session, 25 June, 2008, Spanish Congress, available under:ágina5) (last access: September 30, 2008).

[7] The ratification was published by the Spanish Official Journal (BOE) on July 31st ( The parliamentary process was fast indeed if we consider that elections had taken place in mid-March and the Parliament was appointed in April. The Lisbon Treaty ratification bill was the first bill to be presented by the Government in the legislative term 2008-2012 (April 30th) and the entire procedure only lasted three months.

[8] The parties who opposed the treaty were the former communist “Izquierda Unida“ and two tiny leftist nationalist parties in Catalonia and Galicia. Despite this huge majority, the Spanish Constitution (art. 93) does not require any qualified majority to ratify European treaties but only absolute majority in both chambers.

[9] Referendum was held in 20 February 2005, with a a turnout of 42.32% voters. 76.73% voted “Yes“ and 17.24% “No“.

[10] Address by the Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero “In Spain's interest: A Committed Foreign Policy” on 16 June 2008 organised by the Elcano Royal Institute available in English, French and Spanish at: (last access: September 30, 2008).

[11] See the address by Mariano Rajoy in the Parliamentary Journal of Debates (Diario de Sesiones del Congreso de los Diputados, IX Legislatura), 18th Plenary Session, 25 June, 2008, Spanish Congress, available under:ágina5) (last access: September 30, 2008).

[12] See 18th wave of the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute (June 2008), available under: (last access: September 30, 2008).