This article was originally published in the Financial Times on 12 May 2008
Camel-like, the Treaty of Lisbon has
now come to the eye of the needle. The small door through which it must pass is
the referendum in Ireland
on June 12. Only Ireland has
decided to ratify the European Union treaty by popular vote: elsewhere, shocked
by the impact of the negative referendums in France
and the Netherlands
three years ago politicians have returned to the relatively safe haven of their
Quite why Ireland still sticks to referendums
is far from clear. A much cited case in 1987 brought by eurosceptic Raymond
Crotty against the Single European Act, is not the answer.
In that judgment the Irish Supreme
Court found that transfers of sovereignty from Ireland to the European Union
only had to be sanctioned by referendum if their transfer had the effect of
altering “the essential scope or objectives” of the EU. At that stage, the
introduction of a common foreign policy was deemed to necessitate a referendum.
The Treaty of Lisbon, however, makes no
such innovation, but seeks merely to build upon the Union’s
existing powers. At no stage in the protracted constitutional negotiations that
culminated at Lisbon
was it seriously proposed to confer major new competences on the EU. Instead,
the new treaty serves to clarify and rationalise the Union’s
current scope and objectives, notably in the fields of security and defence
policy and justice and home affairs. What matters is to strengthen the capacity
of the Union to act with efficacy in a more
challenging world. This means concentrating on improving legal and political
procedures, streamlining instruments and boosting the democratic legitimacy of
the institutions. Even the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which in any case
builds on the existing corpus of European rights law, is mandatory only within
the context of the explicit competences of the EU and the powers of its
So the choice of a referendum in Ireland is not
a constitutional matter but a product of its peculiar political system. Ireland’s
parliament is elected by an unusual form of proportional representation, the
Single Transferable Vote, which pitches MPs and candidates as much against
their own party colleagues as against those from opposition parties. Populism
is rife, and there is always the risk of pork-barrel politics.
Party political forces are aligned more
on the outcome of the Irish civil war in the 1920s than they are on
contemporary ideology. And it is these political parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine
Gael – which, having shuffled off the responsibility for taking the decision on
parliament to people, are only now, and tardily, beginning their official
campaigns to persuade folk to say Yes.
It is not an easy task. Membership of
the EU has brought Ireland
out of the shadow of the United
Kingdom and has made many Irish rich. Ireland is a
small country which has always managed to punch above its weight in EU
politics. Nevertheless, European integration is a sensitive issue in a country
where nationalist and republican sentiment is still strong. Rural Ireland remains
religious and conservative. Many feel the risk of Irish isolation on the
western periphery of a Union that enlarges
eastwards. Immigration has replaced emigration as the very public face of Europe – and just at the time that, economically, the
Celtic tiger has lost her growl.
All these sensibilities have been
exploited by the numerous factions of the nay-sayers. It is of little comfort
that almost all their diverse and often contradictory arguments are wrong.
Much Irish euroscepticism concerns not
the prospective Treaty of Lisbon but the current, unreformed EU. Beef farmers
oppose an agreement in the Doha Round that would lower the EU’s import tariffs.
Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson is criticised for pursuing his own,
Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal agenda at the expense of the CAP. In the light of
immigration and of recent judgments of the European Court of Justice, trade
unionists fear for their wages and jobs.
Others, wilfully or not, misread the Lisbon treaty.
Left-wingers claim that Lisbon will impose
nuclear energy on Ireland.
Business people spread alarm about how the EU, under Lisbon,
will force Ireland
to raise its corporation tax. Nationalists insist that Ireland’s post-colonial ‘neutrality’ will be
impossible to sustain under Lisbon.
And right-wing Christians claim that the Charter will authorise abortion in Ireland. (Where
is the Pope when you need him?)
The institutional questions are being
wildly distorted in the debate, particularly by people who should know better
(see, for example, the article by Mary Lou McDonald MEP in the Irish Times, of
April 29.) It is asserted, wholly without evidence, that the treaty’s hugely
important democratic reforms will leave the citizen worse off than now. Irish
eurosceptics have also borrowed the lie of their British counterparts who claim
that Lisbon is
somehow a ‘self-amending’ treaty. What that might be is never explained. The
truth is that there can be no future change to the EU treaties, however
insignificant, without the unanimous agreement of all member state governments
and also their national parliaments.
Battling against so much deception in a
four week campaign is going to be difficult. It will be essential for
pro-treaty campaigners to nail two monstrous falsehoods. The first is that it
is reasonable to support the EU but be against the Lisbon treaty. (Sinn Féin and the British
Tories have more in common than meets the eye.) But the fact is that to reject Lisbon means having to
continue with the Treaty of Nice – which, paradoxically, eurosceptics
universally hate. Without Lisbon
the EU will continue to be weak in global affairs and clumsy in the domestic
arena; parliamentary democracy will remain half-finished, the rule of law
impaired and the system of government opaque. Putting more demands on an
unreformed Union, for example in the field of
climate and energy policy, or in the efforts to combat poverty and
discrimination, will be futile. Without Lisbon,
the EU will be unable to deliver better public policy.
The second big falsehood is that if Ireland says
No, there will be something better on offer. There won’t. The Treaty of Lisbon
is the best we can do. It is not perfect, and, like the camel, not pretty.
Someday it too will need to be revised. But Lisbon is today’s consensus. There is no
agreement to do anything else – certainly not to embrace the neo-communist
agenda of Sinn Féin. This time, there really is no Plan B. Those Irish who wish
Europe well should vote Yes. And Europeans who
well should urge them to do so.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.