The Irish Referendum: Second Verse Same as the First?
October 1, 2009
Q1: What are the Irish voting about (again), and what is at stake?
A1: Ireland goes to the polls on Friday, October 2, for the second time in 16 months to cast their ballots on the fate of the Treaty of Lisbon—a treaty that rebrands the European Union as a more efficient and streamlined institution. The current EU institutional construct is quite unwieldy (as it was never designed for a bloc of 27 members) and suffers from frequent criticism that it is a bloated bureaucracy, “detached” from the interests and concerns of the average European. In response to this criticism, the Lisbon Treaty has been designed to: (1) strengthen the role of the European Parliament (the only EU institution directly elected by EU citizens); (2) simplify voting rules, which will expand qualified majority voting (as opposed to required unanimity) to more policy areas; and (3) establish a “permanent” president of the European Council, appointed for a renewable term of two and a half years, and a powerful EU foreign policy chief, supported by an EU diplomatic service—positions that will help the European Union speak with a unified and consistent policy voice.
Ireland is the only EU member state to submit the treaty to a public referendum (rather than being ratified by national parliaments) due to a 1987 Irish Supreme Court decision that requires any significant amendments to the treaties of the European Union to be approved by referendum, as they would necessitate an amendment to the Irish Constitution.
Q2: How does the vote look now, and what are the key concerns for Irish citizens?
A2: The most recent opinion polls ahead of the Friday vote show that between 48 and 55 percent of Irish voters favor approval of the treaty and that up to 33 percent are in the “no” camp. Two factors may affect and potentially skew this polling data, however: (1) if there is low voter turnout; and (2) if the vote is directed toward and about the government’s handling of the economic crisis, as Irish prime minister Brian Cowen’s popularity stands at 20 percent.
Last year’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was narrowly defeated with just over 53 percent voting “no.” At the time, the “no” camp was more effectively organized, and the government’s pro-EU campaign effort was meager. This time, however, the global economic crisis has completely changed the dynamics of the referendum. After receiving substantial monetary support from the European Central Bank during the economic crisis, many Irish voters believe there are indeed tangible economic benefits to being closer to the European Union. Moreover, for this second go-round, the Irish government has secured additional assurances from the European Union on issues important to Irish voters (Ireland’s neutrality, taxation policies, and “values” issues) in order to undercut the “no” camp’s main arguments against the treaty.
Q3: What’s next for the Lisbon Treaty?
A3: As the great Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and this is certainly true for the Lisbon Treaty. If the Irish referendum passes, the Lisbon Treaty still needs to be signed by the eurosceptic presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic. Polish president Lech Kaczyński has pledged to sign the treaty into law if Ireland passes its referendum. However, the treaty’s status in the Czech Republic is far more uncertain and could be deeply problematic for the European Union. Several Czech senators have recently filed a complaint with the Czech Constitutional Court arguing that the Lisbon Treaty infringes on the country’s sovereignty. Although the court has rejected similar complaints, Czech president Vaclav Klaus has stated that he will not sign the treaty until the court issues its final verdict, a decision that could delay ratification until Spring 2010—just in time for British general elections and a potential victory by the eurosceptic Conservative Party. British Conservative Party leader David Cameron has stated that he would submit the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum in the United Kingdom if it has not been ratified by all member states after his election. If this scenario were to play out, a final and likely fatal blow would be dealt to the Lisbon Treaty.
If the Irish referendum fails or if the Czech president or the UK Conservatives were able to derail the process, the European Union would be thrown into a complete tailspin. Would the Union continue to conduct its business under the present structure or not? Would select EU member states form a “core group” and operate under the auspices of the Lisbon Treaty, leaving other EU members behind? The answers to these questions are unclear as the Union has not initiated any contingency planning for the treaty’s potential failure. What is clear in this scenario is that European leaders would be less able to focus on the most pressing issues on the U.S. agenda—emerging from the global economic recession, addressing the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat—or to manage some of their own affairs including enlargement and neighborhood policy. An internal European institutional crisis at this time would be disastrous for Europe and an unwelcome distraction that the Obama administration can ill afford.
Heather A. Conley directs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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