On 13 June the Irish voted no to the Lisbon Treaty. After a lively campaign and heated debate, 53.4% voted against, 46.6% for.
Ireland is the only country to have had a referendum on the treaty. This so-called "mini-treaty", agreed upon by member states in late 2007, was what European Union leaders managed to salvage from the draft constitution after the no votes in France and Holland in 2005. Of the 27 member states, 18 have ratified the treaty and more will most likely follow. But the victory of the no vote leaves the treaty null and void in principle since all member states must ratify it if it is to come into effect in January 2009 as planned.
EU leaders are now suggesting that ratification will continue and that some compromise will be made with Ireland – in the hope the treaty will be accepted in a second vote. It is conceivable that if the Irish vote no a second time they will be asked to leave the EU, though this isn’t a position any member state will defend publicly. An alternative is to abandon the treaty altogether and implement some aspects of it without tying everything together into a single treaty.
One of the leading architects of the "mini-treaty" was the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. The Ireland result came just in time to seriously disrupt French plans for the EU presidency which began on 1 July. Sarkozy had wanted to use the presidency to push forward French initiatives, such as the Union for the Mediterranean. But the presidency is likely to be dominated by crisis management, rather than grand gestures.
The no campaign in Ireland was similar to the French no campaign back in 2005. It was made up of a very disparate set of groups and interests, which spanned the political right and left. The vast majority of the Irish establishment was on the side of the yes campaign.
One of the main groups leading the no vote was Libertas, a campaign group founded by Declan Ganely, an Irish millionaire businessman. The group was originally set up in opposition to the red-tape coming from Brussels and in recent months turned against the Lisbon Treaty. Its campaign focused on the loss of Irish influence in EU decision-making, and its undemocratic nature, and the threat of tax harmonisation: Ireland has a 12.5% corporation tax, one of the lowest in Europe, which many view as essential for Irish economic growth.
Libertas combined free market and pro-business rhetoric with a nationalist defence of Irish interests against the encroachments of the EU bureaucracy. Given Ireland’s economic ties with the rest of the EU, Ganely cut a lonely figure among the business establishment which was largely for the treaty.
Many other groups in the no campaign shared Libertas’ nationalist rhetoric. Sinn Fein, for example, combined a welfarist economic agenda – at odds with Ganely’s anti-regulatory zeal – with the same nationalist sentiment. On the economy, Sinn Fein saw the EU as a malign force for deregulation, particularly in the area of workers’ rights. With the slogan "Ireland deserves better", the party highlighted Ireland’s waning influence in EU decision-making; and it played up the dangers for Irish neutrality, suggesting the Lisbon Treaty would draw Ireland into the EU’s common security and defence structures.
Other groups raised issues of their own. Irish farmers raised concerns about the EU’s position on trade at the World Trade Organisation, and issued warnings to trade commissioner Peter Mandelson. Devout Irish Catholics argued that the EU represented a threat to Ireland’s anti-abortion laws. The no campaign was disparate and full of contradictions: anti-abortion Catholics, free market zealots, anti-war leftists and old school Republican nationalists.
So how did the no campaign manage to stay united and keep its momentum and coherence? The campaign was marked by a general distrust of the EU and of the treaty itself. People didn’t want to vote on something they felt they knew nothing about. They refused to take the mainstream political parties at their word, suggesting a lack of trust in their own elites. This was the progressive kernel of the no vote.
Some of these feelings were present on the yes side too, with a difference: only by being so closely associated with the EU has Ireland managed to become a Celtic Tiger economy, they argued, and the EU was a better, more effective alternative to their own politicians.
But ultimately, uncertainty about the Lisbon Treaty and distrust of political elites grew into a need to defend Ireland’s interests against those of more powerful EU states and of the Brussels bureaucracy. It became David versus Goliath, evident in the popular no slogan "Don’t Be Bullied". This was the populist moment of the campaign: transforming a generalised attack on the elitism of contemporary politics into a more narrow defence of Irish interests in Europe.
The no vote was a welcome rejection of elitist exhortations of "trust us, we know what we’re doing". But its limitation lies in the transformation of a basic challenge to political authority into an anti-EU platform which will profit elites as much as it will anyone else.
Original text in English