Oh shit (again)

Posters from the Irish referendum campaign (picture infomatique / Flickr)

We have been here before. Here is what I wrote after the No vote in France three years ago: http://federalunion.org.uk/oh-shit/. Much of the same applies now after the Irish No vote.

Some facts first of all. The vote in Ireland was 752,451 votes in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, and 862,415 against. With a turnout of 53.1 per cent, the percentage split was 46.6 per cent in favour, 53.4 per cent against. Or put another way, the votes of less than a million Europeans are sufficient to derail a treaty that was agreed by governments representing 500 million Europeans.

And now that the treaty is derailed, can it be put back again? I think there are three possible ways forward.

1. A new vote in Ireland

As after the Irish voted No to the Nice treaty in a referendum, there could be a second ballot in a year’s time after all the other member states have ratified. That was, the prospect of holding up the whole European Union might be sufficient to persuade enough Irish voters to change their minds. The immediate problem with this strategy is that it was already clear to the Irish voters what the consequences for the EU would be of a No vote on the Lisbon treaty and they voted that way regardless.

At the time of Nice, the rerun was put forward as a way of helping the eastern Europeans who at that time were still due to join. These days, those same eastern Europeans have been working in Ireland on building sites and behind bars: the Irish voters can’t be put under the same pressure as before. A second, and bigger, problem with such a rerun is that it rather defeats the purpose of holding a referendum in the first place. Either the people decide or they do not. The problem is that no serious thought has been given to what to do in the event of a No vote, and restaging any referendum that produces such a result is no solution. Worse, it undermines the credibility of referendums elsewhere in Europe later on.

2. The Lisbon treaty without Ireland

Fourteen member states have ratified the Lisbon treaty so far, and the other twelve are committed to doing so by parliamentary means. There is a lot of political support remaining behind the treaty: so much effort was put into negotiating it that one can see why its supporters do not want to give up now. Those politicians who have declared that the Irish vote has killed the treaty in the whole of Europe, such as Tory shadow foreign secretary William Hague and Czech president Vaclav Klaus, were opponents of the treaty in the first place and so are hardly independent authorities on the subject.

But the problem for the continuing supporters of the treaty is that there is no obvious means of implementing the treaty without Ireland. Those parts of the treaty that might readily be opted out of, such as Schengen and defence cooperation, already permit the Irish to stand aside, so there is not much that could be done to its substance. The position would be very different were Ireland to withdraw from the EU altogether, but there seems to be little appetite in Ireland for that.

3. Salvaging parts of the Lisbon treaty

Quite a lot of the treaty could probably be agreed and implemented in other ways. It is at heart an intergovernmental agreement and could be replaced by other, less far-reaching intergovernmental agreements covering those areas where governments cooperate together. The supranational elements of the EU – the Commission, the Parliament – would be harder to change in this way, although the accession treaty that will shortly be negotiated with Croatia might permit the number of MEPs to be reduced, for example.

This approach has the merit of enabling the uncontroversial parts of the treaty to be adopted in an uncontroversial manner. It has two drawbacks, though. First, it can only deal with the uncontroversial parts of the treaty, but a number of the most important reforms were controversial. The reduction in the size of the European Commission, for example, was a big issue in Ireland. Secondly, the reforms it might introduce might relate to the relationship between the EU and the member states, and that between the member states themselves, but not to the relationship between the EU and its citizens. In many eyes, including those of this blog, that third relationship is the most important, and it will be deeply unsatisfactory to leave it unimproved. Opponents of the EU will pick on this problem and use it as an argument that even those parts of the Lisbon treaty that can be saved should not be, and that the fact that they are is further evidence of the gulf between the EU and the voters.

Of these three options, all are unsatisfactory but the third is the least unsatisfactory of the three. After the French and Dutch No votes, I recommended a comprehensive rethink of the constitutional treaty: I don’t think that there is scope for that now. Better to get something done, rather than nothing. Given the overall balance of opinion in the EU – a majority of member states have already ratified, don’t forget – it is perfectly legitimate to find a way to do this. But it is also necessary to learn the lessons from this episode, lessons that we can discuss on this blog in the future.

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