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Which part of No don’t they understand?

When the EU constitution was rejected in 2005, European leaders resolved that the people of Europe would not get a vote on its replacement. But Ireland's constitution forced one exception, and the Irish promptly rejected the Lisbon treaty. Westby Swift looks at why the Irish voted No, what the EU plans to do about it and how the left should respond

August 4, 2008
8 min read

‘Malta would have voted Yes,’ quipped my friend. We were sitting among the press corps at the European summit, held a few days after Ireland’s decisive No to the Lisbon Treaty, killing time by predicting how each EU member would have voted in a referendum. On our final tally, most of the larger countries, from the UK to France and Poland, and much of the rest of the 27-country bloc would have voted No too.

Our game was based on speculation, but European leaders seem to have come to a similar conclusion. While ten national referendums were originally planned on the EU constitution in 2005, the repackaged treaty saw no votes scheduled anywhere – except Ireland, whose constitution forced it to hold one.

In the wake of the Irish result, these committed democrats have now begun to describe referendums in general as a ‘tool for dictators’, as France’s former Europe minister and current centre-right MEP, Alain Lamassoure, did three days after the Irish vote.

Other EU leaders have called for Ireland, whose people committed the cardinal sin of rejecting the current political path that the EU is taking, to be kicked out of the bloc altogether. Among them were Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister who is touted as the country’s next chancellor (although he was quickly reined in) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the celebrated 1968 student leader who is now a Green MEP.

In suggesting that Ireland leave Europe, Cohn-Bendit even compared the country’s No voters to Italians who cast their ballots for the anti-immigrant Northern League. It is an old rhetorical trick: to oppose the current EU is to be ‘anti-Europe’, and to be anti-Europe is to be xenophobic – never mind the fact that the EU itself has just proposed measures to detain migrants for up to 18 months.

Political leaders in a pickle

None of this can disguise the fact that the EU’s leaders are in a bit of a pickle. There is no appetite for a substantive root-and-branch renegotiation of the treaty. But even if there were, the neoliberal and militarist limits of mainstream European political discourse would not enable them to address the real reasons why the Irish voted No. Any new proposal would be no different in substance from the existing document – just as the Lisbon Treaty is no different from the constitution that preceded it.

There will be no Constitution Mark III. Brussels will instead allow for only three possible responses, none of which any progressive should support. The first is a two-speed Europe, in which the rest of the EU pushes ahead without Ireland – although the leaders of other small states would raise their voices against this should it begin to be seriously considered. They have already noted how different the current response has been to when France voted No and the constitution was shelved. Would Europe move ahead without them as well should they have objections to anything in the future?

The second possibility is just stumbling forward with the union as it is, working on the basis of the previous Nice Treaty. The genesis of the current treaty and the constitution was the idea that with 27 members, the existing arrangement was too unwieldy. However, since the adhesion of the new member states in 2004, the EU has chugged along with little of the institutional paralysis that had been predicted.

The trouble with this option is that in a multi-polar world facing escalating resource scarcity and concomitant instability, the politicians and technocrats in Brussels know that to maintain their vision of Europe’s global position, deeper European economic, political and military integration is vital – a vision that is even shared by Tory MEPs.

The third, and most likely, scenario is the cobbling together of a package of opt-outs that apply to Ireland, and then force the Irish to vote a second time. The shock of this option, which was mooted just minutes after the referendum result was announced, is that Lisbon was allegedly intended to make Europe more transparent and democratic.

Yet telling people to keep on voting until they come up with the ‘right’ answer hardly amounts to respecting the democratic wishes of the people of Europe.

Why Ireland voted No

In Ireland, as in the Netherlands and France at the time of the 2005 referendums, almost the entire political, economic and cultural establishment strongly backed the treaty. This included all the mainstream political parties (including the previously Euro-critical Greens, who are now safely ensconced in government), along with the church, all the major newspapers, the farmers’ association, employers and some unions.

In contrast, a majority of women, young people, middle-aged people, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, urban voters, rural voters, housewives and students opposed the treaty. The only demographic where a majority voted Yes was among rich old men, as the Economist noted.

There are numerous reasons why the Irish voted No – based on concerns ranging from growing EU militarism to the bloc’s democratic deficit and attacks on social services and workers’ rights.

While some of this opposition to the treaty did come from the right, the No campaign was markedly the territory of the left, whether socialist, Irish republican, alter-globalist or pacifist. There were various No campaigns, but even the neoliberal No group Libertas – despite arguing that people should vote No due to worries that Ireland would lose its low-tax status (if only!) – focused its campaign more on democratic concerns than tax issues.

Indeed, only six per cent of voters said they plumped for the No side to ‘protect our tax system’, according to a Eurobarometer flash poll commissioned hours after the result by the EU Commission to find out why the vote was lost.

Likewise, for all the reports in the continental press that Catholic Ireland was afraid that the Charter of Fundamental Rights – given additional legal weight by Lisbon – would allow Brussels to fly in armies of gay proselytisers to convert the young, install abort-o-matic machines in every kitchen, and euthanise all senior citizens at the first sign of incontinence, such ‘moral issues’ figured as a concern among only two per cent of No voters, according to the same survey.

For as long as the arguments behind the No are willfully misunderstood, any opt-outs will not address the key concerns of Irish voters.

Matching the masses

Sinn Fein, which was the only significant party to support a No, is now considering switching to supporting the Yes side in a second referendum should there be sufficient opt-outs on protecting Irish workers’ rights and the country’s tradition of neutrality.

As People’s Movement spokesperson and former Green MEP Patricia McKenna told me, ‘Any opt-outs for Ireland miss the point – however they may or may not protect Ireland, what about the rest of Europe? How do we protect the rest of Europe from the militarisation of Europe and the lack of democracy?’

‘Those on the No side are more pro-European than those supporting the Yes,’ she continued. ‘Yes supporters are not doing the EU any favours. What is contained in the treaty only encourages greater anti-EU sentiment. People won’t put up with this forever, and that’s the real threat to Europe.’

What is most striking here is how, for a third time since Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001, the left of the left has matched the politics of the mass of the people in an EU vote, with almost the entire establishment lined up against it. Yet during general elections the voters return, albeit in diminishing numbers, to the mainline parties.

If this political space is to be maximised for the left, we have to go on the offensive. This is easy to say, but it is sometimes harder for the ostensibly internationalist left to overcome national parochialisms than EU leaders. Yet a genuinely pan-European extra-parliamentary left should be born in the confidence that, on every issue bar immigration, our beliefs closely match those of the mass of Europeans.

September’s European Social Forum should resolve that any attempt to force the Irish to vote again be met with Europe-wide demonstrations. More importantly, it could call for an Estates-General of the people of Europe in which every popular sector – environmental groups, human rights and development NGOs, rank-and-file workers, students, pensioners, women, minorities and immigrants – is represented, in order to forge a counter-proposal for the social Europe we want to see.

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