The ghost of a “no” vote in Thursday’s Irish referendum has been making many people shiver. A rejection of the Treaty would upset the delicate balance which has kept the much buffeted European ship afloat, leaving an already weakened Gordon Brown in a difficult position, perhaps even forcing him to call a referendum, too.
In addition, it would embolden the Czech government to go back on what was already signed by refusing to ratify, and possibly other governments as well. Besides trying to accommodate a possible Irish “no”, something already highly difficult to pull off without modifying the Treaty and re-opening another round of ratifications, the upshot would see European leaders trying to avoid a chain reaction which would most probably end up splitting the European Union in two. Understandably, nobody wants to contemplate facing up to the possibility that the enormous efforts undertaken to save the ill-fated European Constitution, scuppered after it was rejected by France and the Netherlands in 2005, may well have been in vain.
Alarm at this prospect, well founded according to recent polls, is more than justified. No one should forget that Ireland already voted against the Treaty of Nice in 2001. Nor does the experience of past referenda augur well, clearly showing that campaigns and public debate often produce the opposite than desired effect, softening up the “yes” vote and mobilising the undecided towards the “no” camp. Europe connects poorly with the electorate, and a referendum always provides a wonderful opportunity to channel general discontent.
As has been said recently, there is no “plan B” if Ireland votes “no”; the Lisbon Treaty already is “plan B”, attempting as it does to address the demands of the nine states which rejected the Treaty or suspended ratification procedures in 2005. The other eighteen states which did go on to ratify the European Constitution have made important concessions, some of great symbolic and political significance, based on the promise that a watered down, more lightweight Constitution would be more acceptable to the citizens of opposing countries. But if their governments are incapable of living up to their promises, then obviously a change of the ground rules is required, especially on the matter of unanimity.
In the exercising of its sovereignty, Ireland has decided to submit all European Treaties to a referendum. Nobody can find fault with that from a democratic point of view. Arguments against the Treaty are diverse, a reflection, as always, of national idiosyncrasies. Some argue in favour of neutrality, others link the vote to moral issues such as abortion; there are also those who protest against Eastern European “social dumping”, or the alleged aim of Brussels to force Ireland to raise its low corporate tax rate. There are even some, like Irish farmers, who have managed to force the government into absurdly promising to veto a possible free trade agreement in Doha, an issue which has nothing to do with the Treaty.
One can be more or less sympathetic to these arguments, but the fact of the matter is they are Irish arguments, not European ones. For that reason, the declarations by the President of the Commission (“the eyes of millions of Europeans are on Ireland”), however well-intentioned, are a mistake, implicitly recognizing that this is a European referendum. And yet, thanks to the principle of unanimity, that is the harsh reality we are facing in Ireland this Thursday; namely, that four million Irish citizens will decide not only for themselves, but also for five hundred million Europeans, the sovereign content of other member states made void in the name of national sovereignty.
If the Irish people do not want to accept the Treaty then, as goes without saying, nobody can force them to do so. But that is not the question at stake here. The question, instead, is whether Ireland can oblige other Europeans to reject a Treaty which they do indeed desire. Such as it is understood at present, unanimity is not only unacceptable from a democratic standpoint, but also comes at a great cost, making the EU incapable of evolving or adapting in the future, given that 27 ratifications would be required for even the slightest change to the Treaty.
So what is the alternative? The answer lies in the Treaty coming into force in countries in favour of it, providing they make up two thirds or three quarters of members states and the EU population. Despite the short term disaster that a vote in Ireland against the Treaty would mean, it would at least provide some long term gain if it paved the way for an end to the kind of absurd ratification procedures which will leave us all in suspense on June the 12th.
Translation by Douglas Wilson
Originally published in Spanish in EL PAIS on Monday 9th, 2006.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.