Disagreement over reasons for Irish rejection and over a British referendum

Throughout the process of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in the British parliament, the opposition Conservative Party, together with much of the British press, argued that a referendum should be held for the treaty’s ratification in the United Kingdom. Two premises formed the basis of this argument: first, that the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties were essentially identical, so that the government’s promise to hold a referendum on the former should apply also to the latter; and, second, that the Lisbon Treaty was in any case ‘of constitutional significance’ and therefore needed the direct consent of the electorate. In arguing for ratification by parliament only, the government focused its efforts on countering these two lines of argument. Others speaking out against a referendum were free to rely upon other arguments to make their case; in particular the supposed unsuitability of a treaty of such complexity for a public vote (in contrast to ratification by a representative body elected arguably for precisely such circumstances), and the contention that participants in referendums frequently cast their votes on the basis of demonstrably false information or for reasons unrelated to the question at hand – notably as a ‘protest vote’.
 
In the event, by the time of the Irish referendum, the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification had passed through the House of Commons without a referendum being conceded by the government. For those in the UK favouring a referendum, the Irish vote took on added significance, becoming something of a surrogate for that “denied” the British electorate.
 
In the aftermath of the Irish ‘No’ vote, the responses of British commentators and politicians were consonant with their pre-existing attitudes towards the need for a referendum, which in turn tended to be products of their underlying attitude towards the treaty itself. According to Will Hutton in the Observer, the referendum’s result was founded upon “lies and disinformation”.[1]
 
The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, pointed to the prevalence during the referendum campaign of ”vote-no” posters which cited issues of “abortion, tax and conscription”, none of which were impacted by the treaty. Those who in the UK had argued that such a complex treaty was an inappropriate subject for a public vote felt some vindication from an Irish poll held on 6 June, which suggested that a lack of understanding of what the Treaty was about – in spite of a concerted effort on the part of the Irish government to inform the public of its contents – was a significant factor in people’s voting ‘No’. The same poll also identified as a major reason for voting ‘No’ an objection simply to ”being told what to do”.
 
For many opposing the treaty, the myriad motivations for Irish voters’ rejection seemed of little concern once the result was known. For instance, Conservative member of parliament David Heathcoat-Amory characterised the vote as a “a clear democratic decision to reject this dreadful document”.[2] Many other traditionally eurosceptic newspapers and political commentators echoed his anlaysis.
 
By contrast, The “Guardian” newspaper regretted that the Irish government had “let the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty become the hostage of general public discontent”,[3] and “The Economist”, which had been ambivalent about the Lisbon Treaty, concluded that “in truth, the Irish referendum was not a good advertisement for direct democracy”.[4]
 
Quite apart from arguments over the ambiguity of the message from the Irish electorate, other commentators found reason to wonder whether or not it was truly democratic that a margin of 110,000 Irish voters could over-ride the wishes of the democratically-elected governments of 26 other member states. For those agreeing with the “Economist’s” description of the EU as “an intergovernmental organisation that needs a consensus to proceed”, such arguments are bogus.
 
UK’s commentators see dark future for the Lisbon Treaty
 
Political actors and commentators have been eager to express their ”respect” for the result of the Irish referendum, though, thanks to the varied interpretations of the referendum, this entails different responses for different actors. The idea of a second Irish referendum is a central feature of discussion, and explicitly favoured by commentators such as Will Hutton[5] (who nonetheless appreciates the political difficulty in asking the Irish to vote again until the “right result” is achieved), but considered anathema by many other commentators. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, identified the need for “time for reflection” in Ireland, but even a cautious expression of sentiment such as this is seen by some as paving the way for a second Irish referendum indeed, as being “insulting on so many levels”, according to David Heathcote-Amory.[6]
 
The UK’s ratification complete, the British government is likely to attempt to keep this new political conundrum an inconspicuous topic in the months to come. Indeed, it has been careful not to call explicitly for any particular response by the European Council to the impasse which is forming. (“What happens now is as clear as peat soil”, read one newspaper editorial[7]) For the British government, the treaty remains a domestic political liability, one which has had a great deal of political capital spent on it; capital which might have been spent in vain should the treaty fall. What it is most keen to avoid are calls for the abandonment of the treaty’s ratification, or, worse still, renewed calls for a referendum in the UK.
 
In the longer term, the lack of a ‘plan B’ is seen in the UK as making very real the prospect that the Lisbon Treaty will not be ratified. For most commentators, this need be no great loss. Among them, some are delighted to herald what they perceive as an obstacle to – even a bulwark against – the formation of a “United States of Europe”, while others see the treaty’s innovations as being worthwhile and desirable (and therefore its abandonment as being regrettable) but not indispensable for the Union’s continued success. Others are more pessimistic. Following the vote, the ”Guardian” newspaper concluded that “[i]n the longer term [...] the prospects of creating a Europe with a strong voice and distinct leadership are darker this morning than they were yesterday.”[8]
 
For some commentators, many (though by no means all) of the treaty’s innovations can legitimately be implemented by other means, such as by incorporation in Croatia’s accession treaty. On their analysis, the future agreement of 27 or 28 governments on specific reforms present in the Lisbon Treaty as part of a larger compromise is an entirely legitimate way to proceed. Those who would deny the legitimacy of such a decision would however be likely to interpret progress along these lines merely as confirming their worst fears about the unyielding emasculation of the nation state by the European project.
 




[1] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/15/eu.ireland (last access: 22 September 2008).

[2] See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1027313/EU-liars-Labour-said-Lisbon-Treaty-given-rites-today-theyll-kiss-life.html (last access: 22 September 2008).

[3] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/14/ireland.eu1 (last access: 22 September 2008).

[4] See: http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11579372 (last access: 22 September 2008).

[5] “[The EU] will have to ask Ireland to resubmit essentially the same treaty for a second referendum early in 2009.” See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/15/eu.ireland (last access: 22 September 2008).

[6] See: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1027313/EU-liars-Labour-said-Lisbon-Treaty-given-rites-today-theyll-kiss-life.html (last access: 22 September 2008).

[7] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/14/ireland.eu1 (last access: 22 September 2008).

[8] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/14/ireland.eu1 (last access: 22 September 2008).