The Irish referendum: how to restore confidence in our political leaders

Some Euro-commentators and leaders are arguing that the rest of the EU should go ahead and ratify the Lisbon treaty, despite its rejection in the Irish referendum, in the hope that evidence of Ireland's isolation in rejecting ratification might shame the Irish electorate into voting for the treaty in a re-run of the referendum.  This seems to be based on a crucial misperception of the state of public opinion in Europe.

Even if the rest of the EU does ratify the Lisbon treaty, it seems unlikely so to impress the Irish electorate that it would persuade enough of them to change their minds and vote for ratification in a second referendum on the same treaty (and if the treaty itself is changed, all 27 member states will have to start the process all over again, not an attractive prospect). The Irish would doubtless say, probably correctly, that since not a single other EU member state will have held a referendum before ratifying it, there's no evidence that the people of the EU are willing to support the treaty: if other countries had risked holding referendums, it seems highly likely that it would have been rejected in several of them, almost certainly including the UK.

If the mostly desirable elements of the Lisbon treaty are ever going to be implemented — a virtually indispensable condition of the EU playing its full part in tackling huge current global problems such as climate change, terrorism, world poverty and inequality, and the international control of the resort to violence in international affairs — it's vital to try to analyse why the Irish voted No, and why so many other EU citizens would probably have voted No if they had been given the opportunity; and then to consider what, if anything, can be done to alleviate these concerns and remove these objections.

In the case of Ireland, several specifically Irish issues seem to have influenced the referendum, including several that are totally irrelevant to the Lisbon treaty:  fear that a reformed EU would force Ireland to legalise abortion;  disillusionment with several Irish political leaders and unfamiliarity with the new Taoiseach;  failure of the Irish government and other pro-treaty elements to make the case for the treaty convincingly and intelligibly;  the fantastic obscurity of the text of the treaty itself, so that many voters felt they were being asked to vote for something whose implications it was impossible to understand;  anger at the prospect that under the treaty's provisions, Ireland would lose its EU Commissioner; and  (perhaps most potently?) anger and alarm at the economic downturn, itself the product of the steep rise in international commodity prices (especially oil and food), the collapse of the boom in house prices, and the international credit crunch following the US sub-prime mortgage disaster:  the blame for all these woes, however unfairly, being laid at the door of Ireland's own politicians.  If the politicians were urging a vote for ratification, the Irish were damned if they were going meekly to obey the bastards.

There are two striking things about this combination of negative issues.  First, they don't reflect any widespread anti-European sentiment in Ireland, which indeed has prospered mightily as a direct result of its EU membership.  Secondly, most of the sentiments, worries and concerns contributing to the No vote in the referendum are widely shared in many other EU countries;  few are unique to Ireland, and those that are probably have similar counterparts elsewhere in the EU.  The people of some EU countries differ from the Irish in exhibiting a high level of antipathy to the whole European project: the UK is certainly one of these, and some of the new eastern and central European countries (and/or their leaders) are others.  Even those who are generally pro-European are often critical of the lack of transparency of many of the processes of the EU, of the centripetal tendencies of the Commission, of the failure to clean up the Union's finances, of what is rather vaguely referred to as the democratic deficit.  All such tendencies will tend to predispose a goodly number of individual European voters to vote No in a referendum on almost any proposition recommended to them by their political leaders, however intrinsically innocuous.

Much the most serious of the issues setting electorates against their political masters must be the prospect of economic slow-down, perhaps lurching into full-scale recession, in the next several years.  Many (although not all) Europeans have got used to years of continuing boom, with low inflation, high employment, low interest rates, and a steadily rising standard of living.  The illusion has been created that our political, economic and financial systems and those who operate them have finally gained control of the world economy, and that boom no longer infallibly leads to bust.  The quite sudden bursting of that illusory balloon has caused a general antipathy to politicians and a deep scepticism about their ability to protect us all against the miseries of inflation, strikes and general industrial unrest (especially in the public services), a rise in the cost of borrowing, including on credit cards and mortgages, and increased dangers of eviction from one's home as a result of negative equity.  The huge rise in the cost of petrol, gas and electricity, and many basic foods, has come as a terrible shock.  Someone must be to blame.  

One casualty of these developments is certain to be a collapse in support for absolutely essential measures to deal with climate change on a global scale, many of them inevitably entailing cuts in living standards, not only in developing countries struggling to escape from extreme poverty, but also in the rich west.  Neither of the present contenders for the US presidency seems to be brave enough to say publicly that the days of cheap gasoline are over, that high gas (petrol) prices are actually beneficial and to be welcomed because they will encourage more economic use of carbon fuels that damage the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, or that only costly gasoline is going to stimulate the search for alternative, eco-friendly energy sources (although Senator Obama has come creditably close to making these points).  The pressure from ordinary Americans on their political leaders in a presidential election year to do something quickly to get gas prices down and keep them down is so intense as to be almost irresistible.  

Here in Britain popular resentment of the government in the context of the downturn and the return of inflation and, soon, of higher unemployment seems likely to lead to more strikes and disruptions of public services resulting from pay and other disputes.  The government has an unanswerable case for arguing that if pay increases are allowed to keep up with (or, worse, jump ahead of) inflation, when the causes of the inflation are international and beyond any single government's control, everyone will suffer from the resulting inflationary spiral, with the value of each pay rise immediately negated by the consequent inflation of prices.  But the government seems at the moment intent on placing the entire burden of pay policy restraint, meaning inevitable reductions in living standards for millions of individual families and individuals, on the public sector.  There is no sign of willingness to use the tax system to curb excessive bonuses and salary increases in many parts of the private sector, nor to restrain the indiscriminate distribution of enormous profits, especially those made as a result of unprecedentedly high energy prices which benefit an already rich few at the expense of everyone else.  The nurse, teacher, or junior civil servant can hardly be blamed for complaining of the rank injustice of having his or her standard of living reduced by pay awards below the level of inflation — in other words, pay cuts — when all around the wealthy are continuing to award themselves and each other real increases in already astronomical salaries and bonuses; and when even the moderately well off are not apparently being required to make any corresponding sacrifice.  Mere appeals by ministers for pay and salary restraint in the private sector will cut no ice at all.

The free marketeers inevitably moan about the distortions of the market caused by compulsory pay policies imposed on the whole of the economy, with its echoes of the centrally controlled economies of the bad old days before the collapse of European communism.  Ministers are deeply reluctant to seem to be returning to the unpopular policies and attitudes of Old Labour.  But in an increasingly challenging economic situation, here is one manifest injustice that is capable of being remedied in a way that might help to restore confidence in the capacity of our political leaders to control inflation and protect even the most vulnerable members of society against the worst of its malign effects.  People might even become more willing to listen to the politicians' arguments for reforming the procedures and institutions of the European Union to equip it to make its voice heard in the global debates on the issues that threaten the long-term future, not just of this or that ailing industry, but of the human race and the tiny planet on which it lives.

Postscript (23 June 08):  For some reason three comments on this post, all by Peter Harvey with my responses, have disappeared from this particular post when viewed in Internet Explorer: but they are there when it's opened in Firefox.  The website addresses of the post and most of the comments have also apparently been corrupted in IE.  I am working on this but can't immediately see a solution.  Meanwhile apologies to Peter and others.  Try Firefox!  The comments should be available at:
http://www.barder.com/ephems/799#comment-72364
http://www.barder.com/ephems/799#comment-72482
and
http://www.barder.com/ephems/799#comment-72492  

PPS (26 June 08):  Problem with those comments now solved, thanks to Owen's eagle-eyed spotting of the fact that I had stripped out the Word tags from the first of Peter's comments but not from the second:  and it was these that were blocking access to all of them in Internet Explorer (but not in Firefox).  All should now be well in either browser, and any others that anyone might still be using.

Brian 

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10 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    failure of the Irish government and other pro-treaty elements to make the case for the treaty convincingly and intelligibly;  the fantastic obscurity of the text of the treaty itself, so that many voters felt they were being asked to vote for something whose implications it was impossible to understand;

    I don't know if these were significant reasons for a No vote in Ireland, but I do think they're good reasons for a No vote – they're certainly reasons why I'd have voted No, if I'd had a vote.

    Brian writes:  They certainly help to explain why so many people voted No.  Personally I would have voted Yes, for two reasons:  I'm satisfied that most of the institutional and procedural changes embodied in the Lisbon treaty are essential for the (more) efficient management of the now much enlarged EU and that if the EU is to pull its weight in the global decision-making processes on climate change, terrorism, energy supplies, world poverty and inequality, the credit crunch, etc., it needs to be more efficiently managed on the lines proposed in the treaty;  and secondly because I would have feared (unnecessarily, as it has turned out) that if the UK alone of the 27 EU member states had voted to reject ratification of Lisbon, and given the UK's semi-detached status in Europe, the eventual result might well have been that we would have been forced out of the Union altogether, which I would regard as an unmitigated calamity for us, as well as being very bad for Europe. 

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    The ‘fantastical obscurity’ of the Lisbon Treaty itself is a direct result of the way in which it came about. The original Constitutional Treaty, which would have repealed and replaced all the existing treaties, was wordy but was written in coherent language; it could be understood by anyone who really wished to understand it and, at least in Spain, summary documents were published by the government (I remember getting one free with my Sunday newspaper) and a lively debate ensued. Spain, you may remember, approved that proposed treaty handsomely in a referendum.

    After it was rejected in France and Holland, the only recourse was to amend the various treaties (Rome, Maastricht, Nice and perhaps others) to produce almost the same effect. As a result, the Lisbon Treaty is impossible for a layperson to understand as it is merely a collection of amendments to existing documents. 

    Nevertheless, its contents are not difficult to grasp; in fact they are those of the Constitutional Treaty with the omission of the formal, symbolic trappings of sovereignty: flag, anthem and day, though these are still recognised (some opponents of Lisbon try to have it both ways when they argue on one hand that it is basically the same as the Constitutional Treaty and on the other that it is impossible to understand). Briefly, these contents are:

    –>·         Giving the EU a legal personality so that it can sign treaties and act formally in world affairs. At present it is, in legal terms, merely an informal association of sovereign states.

    –>·         Providing it with a High Commissioner for External Relations. This is the answer to Kissinger’s question: If I want to speak to Europe, what phone number do I call? There would also be an EU diplomatic service.

    –>·         Reducing the size of the Commission. It made sense at the outset to have one commissioner from each country, but now it is unwieldy and cannot provide enough work for 27 members. In fact the Nice Treaty itself says that a Union of 27 members must have fewer commissioners than member states (so much for Ireland’s rejection of Lisbon).

     –>·         Establishing a permanent Presidency. As with the Commission, a rotating six-month President of the Council made sense with six members but now it is bizarre.

     –>·         Allowing further expansion to the east. Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia are applicant countries and other Balkan states will follow. Even Switzerland is not to be ruled out in the long term. This is impossible with the present unwieldy structure.

     –>·         Qualified majority voting in the council, which again is essential in a Union of this size.

     –>·         Increased powers for the European Parliament.

     –>·         Provision for national parliaments to raise matters with the Commission.

     –>·         Certain social provisions that the UK has opted out of, as it has from the euro and the Schengen agreement.

    Is all this fantastically obscure? I suggest not. I also suggest that the people who demand their right to have a referendum should recognise their concomitant duty to inform themselves of the issues. I suggest too that, had the Irish result been otherwise, there would have been no great opposition in France and Holland; certainly, the French Left have largely recognised their huge blunder in opposing the original treaty, leaving the nationalists (the French National Front, Sinn Féin, UKIP, the Italian Northern League, the Polish national-Catholic far right and a few others) as the main proponents of rejection – for what they are rejecting is an end to Nationalist politics and the adoption of a European perspective. Britain’s far-right newspapers, along with their Nationalist political stooges, are interested in obscuring the issues for their own malevolent ends. British media circulate in Ireland. I am sure that the British media, and British money, played a significant part in the Irish result.

    Brian writes:  Peter, I wasn't criticising the Lisbon treaty for its fantastic [sic] obscurity;  the causes of that obscurity (as you describe them) have always been obvious.  I was merely citing its undoubted obscurity as one of several reasons for the substantial No vote in Ireland, and a number of opinion polls as well as anecdotal evidence have amply confirmed that it was a significant reason.  If the treaty had contained an Explanatory Note spelling out its main purposes and practical effects, perhaps on the lines of your comment above,  the obscurity would have been somewhat reduced.  Equally, if those in Ireland advocating ratification, including I believe the government and all the major Irish parties except Sinn Fein, had run a big information campaign dispensing the kind of information summed up in your comment, the result might have been different, although all the other factors militating against a vote for ratification might just as easily have outweighed a better information effort.  I'm not sure what effect an Irish vote for ratification would have had on opinion in France and Holland, neither of which was or is going to have a referendum this time anyway, and which were presumably going to ratify regardless of the Irish vote.  But it's impossible to brush aside completely the unhappy fact that on all three of the occasions when these proposals have been submitted to popular referendum in three very different EU countries, they have been rejected.  That must tell us something, and the something can't be entirely blamed on the wicked right-wing British media and "British money" [?], tempting though it may be for some people to see the hand of the dastardly Brits in every international set-back.  As I wrote originally, it seems to me that we should first analyse the concerns, worries and misunderstandings that led to the treaty's rejection, and then see what if anything can be done to address them, one by one.

    Posted Jun 21, 12:43 PM | Edit Comment |

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    Brian,

    When you say:

    In the case of Ireland, several specifically Irish issues seem to have influenced the referendum, including … the fantastic obscurity of the text of the treaty itself

    I cannot see how the obscurity or otherwise of the treaty’s text, however described (and I rather thought that I copied the word fantastical from your own posting), is a specifically Irish issue. The treaty as it stands is not intelligible. OK, that is what lawyers are for in everyday life: to explain in good faith what is meant by a document that must, by its nature, be written in difficult language. In a democratic society this role falls to the politicians and the media, who must engage in a proper debate in good faith.

    It is not for the EU itself to mount a ‘big information campaign'. That is for the national governments to do and it seems that the Irish government failed very badly in this respect, not least given the fact that the existing Nice Treaty does not guarantee Ireland a permanent seat on the Commission.

    It's impossible to brush aside completely the unhappy fact that on all three of the occasions when these proposals have been submitted to popular referendum in three very different EU countries, they have been rejected. 

    Whether or not that tells us something (and what I observe is that in each case there was an unholy, unsustainable, and unsurprising coalition of the autarkic far left and the Nationalist far right, united in their different ways by xenophobia), I have no reason to suppose that anything in Britain influenced the French or Dutch votes. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the British media circulate widely in Ireland – I believe that the Sun has an edition printed there – and the Telegraph is syndicated in one Irish newspaper. In view of the general social circumstances of Britain and Ireland, and especially in view of the media connection, I regard it as highly probable that money from Britain’s far right, whether media or political parties, went to fund the Irish No campaign, which they saw as a surrogate for their inability to scupper the EU from within the UK – as they undoubtedly would like to do.

    Brian writes:  Peter, I'm reluctant to enter into a game of textual analysis of my post, which seems to me fairly clear.  The fantastic [sic] obscurity of the text of the treaty is mentioned here in the context of Irish fears that it will lead to unlimited abortions, the end of Irish neutrality, etc., misapprehensions arising from the obscurity and all specific to Ireland.   I did not write 'fantastical'.  I did not say that it was for the EU itself to mount a campaign for a Yes vote in the Irish referendum: indeed, I specifically mentioned the Irish government as having the primary responsibility for this, exactly as you say, as if correcting my point:  I wrote about —

    [the] failure of the Irish government and other pro-treaty elements to make the case for the treaty convincingly and intelligibly

    Regarding it as 'highly probable' that British money was spent to buy No votes in the referendum is a far cry from producing evidence that it was.  How much weight can safely be attached to such speculation is not too difficult to decide.  I know of no way to measure the influence, if any, of the UK media on the referendum result, and I have seen no evidence from the opinion polls that it was anything like as great as the other factors mentioned.  Perhaps I have missed something here:  it's possible that this emerges as important from a poll that I haven't seen;  if not, it's just yet more speculation. 

    So I'm afraid that I see no reason to modify anything that I have written in this post. 

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    Thank you for your reply. I suggest that we have come to the end of this discussion.

    Brian writes:  Thank you too.  I agree. And PS:  Your three comments should now appear in Internet Explorer after I have stripped out the Word tags in the second of them:  it was these that were blocking them in IE (but not Firefox). 

  5. John Miles says:

    What actual difference will the ratification or collapse of the Lisbon treaty make to the lives of "ordinary hard-working families" whose welfare, we are told, is one of Mr Brown's many highest priorities?

    Many of us plebeians are probably just plain jealous.

    We can't help thinking that we're missing out on a massive gravy-train enjoyed by the likes of our MEPs, the Kinnocks and Mr Mandelson.

    Woolly thinking, maybe, but there's quite a lot of it about.

    Brian writes:  The measures proposed in the Lisbon treaty are designed to enable the EU to function effectively, and for the most part collectively, as a significant participant in international affairs, alongside the US, China, India and Russia.  If specifically European values and interests are to carry weight in global action on climate change, terrorism, world poverty and inequality, the global financial system and the threat of a world recession, the implications of the excess of demand for oil, food, water and other commodities over supply, the efficient working of the global trading system, AIDS and avian flu, and a dozen other major threats and opportunities, then Europe will have to speak on all these matters with one voice, not as 27 discordant voices from 27 capitals contradicting each other and competing to protect narrow national interests.  In other words, unless Europe can manage its affairs on the lines envisaged in the Lisbon treaty,  Europe's interests and uniquely European values will go by default and we (or our children and grandchildren) will live in a world dominated and regulated by four superpowers all indifferent to Europe.  It is a fantasy to suppose that none of this will 'make any difference to the lives of "ordinary hard-working families"'.  Do we want a real say in the way the world is run, or don't we?  To dismiss all this as missing out on a gravy-train is to trivialise matters that touch on all the gravest issues of our and our children's time.  Woolly thinking indeed! 

    End of sermon.

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    Excellent Brian. Well said! I would only suggest that Brazil might be added to your list of 21st-century superpowers.

    This exchange mirrors a debate on my own blog, where I comment on the introspection and lack of overall perspective that bedevils the British and Irish view of Europe.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for that, Peter.  (Your remarks refer, of course, to my response to John Miles immediately above.)  I would only add the reservation that "introspection and lack of overall perspective" over Europe and the EU are not, sadly, confined to Britain and Ireland among EU countries;  indeed, opinion in Ireland seems on available evidence to be generally pro-European and quite far-sighted (not surprisingly, given the enormous benefits that Ireland has derived from EU membership), while the referendum result appears to reflect a complex of factors largely unrelated to the Lisbon treaty.  Similar unrelated issues seem also to have influenced the earlier French and Dutch votes against the so-called constitution treaty. There's evidently a pretty widespread mood of disillusionment and scepticism about the EU across much (although not all) of the membership.  My own guess is that it's partly the product of the economic downturn which has darkened the attitude of millions of Europeans towards all politicians everywhere.  Perhaps the EU needs an Obama figure to restore some enthusiasm and optimism and a sense that benign change is possible and within our grasp.

    I should add just two brief points: (1) The dialogue on your own blog to which you refer is civilised, full of insights and immensely readable: vaut la visite, indeed mérite un détour.  (2) You make an interesting point about Brazil.  Perhaps the whole of Latin America will eventually club together à la EU and join the multi-polar nearly-superpower club at some stage?  And what of South Africa and Nigeria?  Interesting speculations.

  7. Peter Harvey says:

    Thank you for the recommendation. I think that I have answered your
    points about the EU in another post on my blog (in a comment).

    As for Ibero-America, Spanish is now the first foreign language taught
    in Brazilian schools. There is an attempt to set up regional communities,
    Mercosur and the Andean Pact for example, but they are weak and
    politically divided. Some of the Andean countries have more extreme and
    less democratic governments (Morales, Chávez) than the more southerly
    ones; and everyone's waiting to see what happens in Cuba. Brazil is the
    coming regional superpower though.

  8. John Miles says:

    OK, but isn’t there a danger you’re preaching to the converted?

    Aren’t there on or two uglyish truths up to which we ought to boldly face?

    For instance, most of us Europeans live in democracies. It seems to me wildly unlikely that Europe could ever say anything constructive "with one voice" unless or until the majority of its electorates were more or less in favour of the organisation; it’s much more probable they’ll simply exploit it to carry on contradicting each other and promoting their own "narrow national interests."

    You may be right to say it trvialises the whole question to talk of gravy-trains, but some of your fellow-citizens wouldn’t agree. They’ve been indoctrinated since babyhood with the notion that other peoples’ politicians are even more corrupt than our own, and the European parliament isn’t exactly famous for financial probity. So can you really blame them for wanting as little as possible to do with it? 

    You ask, "Do we want a real say in the the way the world is run or don’t we?" as if the answer were an automatic "Yes" and the one and only, sure-fire, way to get it is to support the Lisbon Treaty.

    !f only life were that simple!

    First, some people either don’t want, or don’t think we’ll ever get, a real say, and that it would be more sensible for us to concentrate on running our own country as well as possible as they do, for example, in Switzerland.

    Second, not a few of us would rather go along with the Americans, with whom they feel they have more in common than they do with Europe; presumably our Canadian and Antipodean cousins will do the same.

    I can’t help wondering what are "our uniquely European values."

    And is it really a good wheeze to drag in our children, and our children’s children? It seems to me our main responsibiliy to posterity is not to try and solve its political and economic problems, but to pass on to them a planet in as good nick, as far possible, as it was when we inherited it. Our generation has little be proud of.

    Perhaps it’s worth clarifying my own position on Lisburn: if we were to be given a referendum I would vote in  favour, but I would expect our side to lose; if that were the case I think Lisburn should be ditched, though I would hope that public opinion might, over time, come to take a different view.

     

  9. Ronnie says:

    June and I had our wedding reception a few years ago at a brewery in Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, and should be mildly disappointed to see it bombed or otherwise ditched.

  1. 20 June, 2008

    […] It’s the single most important question – because without an answer, how can the EU progress? Brian Barder has a good stab at providing an answer – well worth reading in full: most of the sentiments, worries and concerns contributing to the No vote in the referendum are widely shared in many other EU countries; few are unique to Ireland, and those that are probably have similar counterparts elsewhere in the EU. The people of some EU countries differ from the Irish in exhibiting a high level of antipathy to the whole European project: the UK is certainly one of these, and some of the new eastern and central European countries (and/or their leaders) are others. Even those who are generally pro-European are often critical of the lack of transparency of many of the processes of the EU, of the centripetal tendencies of the Commission, of the failure to clean up the Union’s finances, of what is rather vaguely referred to as the democratic deficit. All such tendencies will tend to predispose a goodly number of individual European voters to vote No in a referendum on almost any proposition recommended to them by their political leaders, however intrinsically innocuous. […]

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