Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

More Irish referendum aftermath thoughts

First up, Nanne’s done a handy roundup of blog reactions (with a few more from RZ) – which further goes to show that there’s no real consensus on what the hell should be done. Some more fervent pro-EU types are adopting the “sod the Irish” approach of continuing ratification and booting Ireland out of the EU if they don’t follow along like a well-trained dog. Some anti-EU types are revelling in the red faces in Brussels and calling for the whole thing to be scrapped again because (obviously) a no vote in a referendum means that every single person voting no did so because they hate the EU and everything it stands for. Neither extreme, fairly obviously, is a sensible option.

Me? I’m still at the stage of thinking out loud, so to speak – reading and writing helps me to work out what I think about things, which is why I started blogging in the first place. I’m still not sure if I’m getting anywhere on the short-term solution. Longer-term I have a far firmer idea of what I’d like to see done – but the likelihood of that coming to pass is minimal, so I’ll leave it for now.

Having read a lot of stuff about the vote over the weekend, the best comment piece I’ve seen so far comes – as so often – from the Financial Times. This quotation is somewhat selective, but gives an inkling of what’s becoming my approach:

First the French, then the Dutch and now the Irish have rejected much the same package of institutional reforms that were supposed to make an enlarged EU more effective and more democratic… Their attitude suggests a worrying gulf between EU decision-makers and popular feeling that needs a new sort of response… The No vote[s were] based on a ragbag of reasons to which there is no obvious response.”

In the FT’s take, a repeat referendum would likewise return a “No” – and I imagine the same would be the case in France and the Netherlands had they been given a chance to vote on the Lisbon Treaty as they were on the Constitution. The anger in France at the two fingers the politicians raised to the people by denying them another vote on a treaty that was so similar to a text that had already been popularly rejected is immense. Who can blame them?

Because the biggest problem facing the EU now is not the much-needed institutional reforms that Lisbon (and the constitution, and Nice) was trying to fix to help the thing function more effectively – it is that the people of Europe are increasingly starting to think that there may well be something in all those allegations of the EU being an undemocratic project of the quasi-mythical political elites for the benefit of those same elites. And you can hardly blame them – French and Dutch “No” votes have already been ignored, the Danish and Irish people have already been told to vote again when they returned the wrong result the first time, and now it looks like the inconvenience of the Irish people voting “No” again is going to lead to some kind of get-around. It’s hard to think of the last time the people of Europe were consulted and their opinions actually taken on board. In fact, I can’t think of a time this has happened – bar the odd small-scale experiment as part of the Plan D initiative over the last couple of years.

Does it matter that on numbers alone the “No” voters in Ireland are a tiny percentage of the EU’s population as a whole? Not while the rest of that population doesn’t get a vote it doesn’t – as pointed out elsewhere, so what if “only” 860,000 Irish voted “No” when the rest of the EU denies the people a vote and leaves the decision up to a mere 9,000-odd politicians? And what does it matter while the EU continues to function with its current set-up, with smaller countries given disproportionate influence to counter the dominance of those with larger populations? The Lisbon Treaty aimed to fix some of the more silly elements of this, but Maltese MEPs would continue to represent 80,000 Maltese compared to German MEPs representing 800,000 Germans – and in many areas the national veto would still have been maintained. Because part of the very point of the EU is to prevent the larger, stronger countries from dominating the continent. To ignore Ireland’s vote is therefore to go against the very essence of what the EU was set up to achieve.

(Please also note that I say all this as someone who argued repeatedly against holding referenda on the constitution and Lisbon treaty. Contradictory? Possibly – but if you hold votes you’d damned well better abide by the results. If not, the people will tend to get increasingly annoyed with you. It’s bad public relations as much as it’s bad democracy.)

In any case, the FT’s proposal for the next step is one of the least contentious I’ve seen so far, and (I hope) the most likely short-term outcome:

It would be more sensible to put the Lisbon treaty on ice for several years, and try to rescue those parts that are important, uncontentious, and capable of being carried out without treaty amendment… Europe does not need to turn the drama of the Irish No vote into a fully-fledged crisis of confidence. Everyone is fed up with negotiating new treaties. The priority should be to make the EU work better with practical policies… with its present rules and 27 member states. The Nice treaty is not ideal, but losing Lisbon should not be seen as the end of the world.

Calm-headedness is the way forward, for sure. But, as I say, the institutional problems are no longer the most pressing. What is needed now more than ever is an energetic campaign to get the people of Europe on board. Mere propaganda drives will not do it – they need to be brought into the debate and made to feel that their voices count. Because currently – with the European Parliament still largely toothless and the French, Dutch and Irish referendum results all more or less dismissed by the powers that be – you can hardly blame people for feeling that in the EU, the people count for nothing.


  1. The Irish foreign minister has practically begged the integrationist countries not to go it alone, because he believes the Irish people really want to be in a CoreEU. Well, why not let us create this CoreEU, and then ask the Irish people whether they really want in? It’s not as if it will be a closed club — everyone will be welcome to join, as long as they are willing to abide by the new rules and deeper integration.

    Asking countries not to forge ahead without them is asking everyone to wait and do nothing for many years. We’ve already done that in the last decade or two, with expansion going ahead unhindered but real progress barred. Enough is enough.

    Let’s start creating a two- or three tier Europe. It’s not going to “break apart” the Union. There already are groupings anyway. Making it explicit can only have positive effects, also for parliamentary AND popular democracy.

  2. Sorry but there’s a massive contradiction here. The Treaty of Lisbon contained a set of reforms, that were rejected, and you quote from the FT saying that as much of it as possible should happen regardless. That strikes me a complete disrespect for the Irish No vote!

  3. Yes, pretend for a while you want to honour the Irish result, then applaud the stealthy way the EU will bypass it. You know what`s best.

  4. @Jon:
    A large amount of issues contained in the Treaty of Lisbon can very likely be implemented with the instruments given by the Treaty of Nice. The only thing is that you can not increase the power of the council (or the parliament) over the nation states. But the institutional reforms are what really matters. You have already pointed out on your that the numbers of commissioners will be decreased under the Treaty of Nice, too. And it should be no problem to establish enhanced foreign policy cooperation without Ireland.

  5. The treaty of Lisbon didn’t go far enough by half(*). It was a compromise designed to get everyone behind it. Well, that failed (for various reasons, some good, some bad). So what is wrong with allowing those who do want to proceed, to actually do that? How is that disrespecting the Irish vote Jon? The Irish wouldn’t be in the initial group of countries/nations making up the new CoreEU, unless they really want to (meaning that their population gets to vote for or against that idea — joining, that is, not blocking others). I respect their right to vote NO. What I don’t respect is that it means no-one else gets a chance to enact serious reform. I guess in that sense I agree to what the EU is saying at the moment: let everyone continue with the ratification process, even though I know it is dead and really hope “something better” will come from it.

    With “something better” I mean “for everyone”. How is that possible? Well, by allowing different speeds, and a democratic choice for people(**) as to which speed is appropriate for them.

    What I wrote in my first post is really what I mean: it will be GOOD for democracy, both “parliamentary” and “popular”. A Two/Three speed EU will be MUCH more democratic than what we have now, with people comfortable with the tier they are in, and having the option to downgrade or upgrade.

    (*) I was only pro-Lisbon because it was an improvement to Nice. I was against Lisbon compared to the Constitution.

    (**) Actually, I would prefer my government AND parliament to make that decision. I’m for parliamentary democracy, not popular democracy. We elect people to act for us for a reason. At least until practical means AND societal understanding is ready for mass referenda on any subject. In a thousand years or so, in other words.

  6. SD – a multi-tier EU is precisely what I’d like to see, but it’s still tricky under the current system, as there would need to be unanimity to go down that path. Perhaps there should be a very simple vote: “Should the EU formally adopt a multi-tier membership system?” – then individual countries could sort out for themselves which parts they want to join – just like the Schengen Agreement, Eurozone etc. (Of course, it’d be nowhere near as simple as that, but still…)

    Jon – yes and no. It’s the problem the EU’s had ever since the French and Dutch votes – as you know, certain sections of the Lisbon treaty are largely uncontentious compromises over the day to day functionality of the EU. Personally I’d far rather see a complete rethink from scratch, with pretty much all of the decidedly uninspiring reforms chucked out entirely, but can’t see that happening, based on the current rhetoric…

    Robin – I thought you only turned up here once a year to misinterpret everything I write?

    RZ – pretty much agreed, only I’m not so sure about enhanced foreign policy cooperation. With the current approach, doesn’t there still need to be unanimity on this? And if so, there needs to be a very specific Irish opt-out – effectively creating yet another special case within the EU membership (to go along with British opt outs over the Charter of Fundamental Rights, French special treatment for ex-colonies, etc. etc. etc.). So we may as well formally go down the multi-tier route.

  7. Nosemonkey once said he doesn`t like referenda on the EU.

    Is that a misinterpretation ?

  8. Yes, Robin, it is. Because actually I’ve repeatedly said that I don’t like referenda full-stop. They’re too black and white for complex issues, and too open for abuse. (Being a eurosceptic I’m sure you’ll recall how the British government abused the 1975 referendum, for example).

  9. Referenda are about single issues,general elections are about a multitude of issues. Why do you think the electorate are too stupid to study and vote on a single issue but capable of only voting on a multitude of issues ?
    If I remember rightly, the government and establishment would have passed the treaty of 1975 anyway. So they held a referendum and abused it. If they held more of them they couldn`t abuse them all and get away with it.

    How do you feel when you`re in Switzerland ? Annoyed at their fuller democracy than ours ?

  10. Robin, I’ll support referenda once the UK and US organize referenda on invading oil-rich countries in the middle east.

    In other words, once pigs learn to fly and dolphins can make fire.

    Clearly a war-and-peace decision is a tiny bit more important than international treaties in which no-one gets killed?

    My point is: while referenda may be one-topic votes, it’s generally not possible for the general public to spend enough time researching an issue, hear arguments pro and against, understand all the legal implications, and debate with experts. Then there are all kinds of special-interest groups who will get out the vote (usually for fringe arguments) while normal people can’t be bothered to make the effort. But worst of all, a referendum doesn’t allow anyone to propose amendments, signaling broad agreement if only some little detail was changed.

    Parliamentary democracy — while far from perfect — is the least bad system that we have. It deals with these problems as well as it can.

    Don’t mention Switzerland — talk to a Swiss person and find out their system isn’t as perfect as others believe.

  11. SD,
    The general public can spend time for researching a referendum issue, hear arguments pro and against, be told the legal implications and debate with “experts” and amongst themselves.Same as for a general election. And if normal people cant be bothered to make the effort then so what (most would do anyway).As for proposing amendments, Britain is the worst for losing out on this sort of horse trading.
    The Swiss seem happy with their system. they can abolish it themselves if they wanted to, such is their democracy.

    As for Iraq, I dont beleive all that rubbish about “war for oil”.
    I didn`t like Tony Blair, but that was one issue he acted in all good faith.The reason I think so ?-he actually did something that he knew wqas unpopular. What did he know that we cannot be told ?