BACKGROUND. The Lisbon Treaty provides the framework for reforms in the European Union, which would mean deeper integration in foreign policy and defense issues, institutional changes and tighter cooperation between member states in several other areas. The Irish vote for the Lisbon Treaty is therefore crucial to the future of the EU and even more relevant in the recent financial crisis which already triggered protectionist tendencies in every EU-country.
Ireland was the only EU member-state which decided to hold a referendum to ratify the Treaty. The referendum was voted down on 12 June 2008. There were 53% ‘No’ votes refusing the treaty versus 47% in favor by the participation of 53.1 per cent.
ANALYSIS. The most important reasons for the rejection are believed to be:
- The political and economic environment:
On the one hand, there was a general distrust against politicians, first of all against the government. On 6 May 2008 the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Bertie Ahern resigned due to a corruption scandal and the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen came from the same party (Fianna Fáil) and it set back the trust towards politicians just weeks before the referendum. On the other hand, Irish people already perceived the effects of the financial crisis – rising unemployment and slowing down of the economy.
- The campaign and the public opinion:
The Eurobarometer poll which was released on 18 June 2008 showed that there was a general lack of knowledge in the Irish society, respondents did not understand the offerings of the Treaty, and were not well informed about the issues at stake which were believed to be too complex and not so much worth for consideration. Furthermore, Sinn Féin, Libertas, Catholic fundamentalists and neo-conservatives clustered into an effective platform to block the Treaty while the ‘YES’-campaign with the governing parties came too late and showed inconsistency in its message and means.
- Regarding the substance of the Treaty, its critics opposed vehemently the followings:
Ireland could not maintain its military neutrality in the future according to the tighter cooperation in the CFSP while the country will loose its Irish Commissioner according to changes in the composition of the EU Commission. Besides, the Irish government could not determine the corporate tax rates independently according to changes in taxation issues and meanwhile it should implement some more liberal regulations on social issues like abortion, euthanasia or gay-marriage.
With the rejection of the Treaty Ireland blocked EU institutions and the reform process, euroscepticism rose in every country and there are difficulties in the governmental acceptance of the Treaty in other EU countries such as the Czech Republic. On the other hand, however, Ireland created a possibility to renegotiate the ‘exceptions’ within the Treaty, besides it generated a negative attitude toward the country and the government.
On the EU Summit in Brussels on 11-12 December 2008 the leaders of the EU made provisions to Ireland about the question of neutrality, social and taxation issues. Besides, there was an agreement about the withdrawal of the changes in the composition of the EU Commission – without the need of re-ratifying the Treaty in every single EU member state where the Lisbon Treaty is already accepted. Ireland promised to set a date for a second referendum before November 2009 since there is an agreement on EU-level that the ratification-process should end before January 2010. There are widespread fears speculating if the process is not concluded before general elections are held in Britain (currently scheduled for 2010), the notoriously eurosceptic British Tories might decline the British participation in the Lisbon Treaty.
Recent opinion polls show a slightly increase in favor of the Lisbon Treaty: TNS/mrbi & Irish Times 9 February – 60.7 per cent in favor; Sunday Business Post 1 February – 58 per cent in favor, and hence the government is considering a second referendum. It has at least three reasons for that, firstly the Irish society supported the Treaty of Nice in its re-run – so it gives a positive example, secondly the provisions created by the EU make the Treaty much more acceptable for the society and finally, Ireland considers the EU as essential in dealing with the financial crisis. Therefore the government aired the idea of an advanced date for the second referendum, but it is questionable whether the recent situation in Ireland enables an early date.
Three options are discussed and the decision will depend first of all on the situation of the government – whether it will be able to deal with the financial crisis and create such an environment in which a decision could be made about the referendum as well.
In the case of a pre-summer date Ireland could restore its reputation in the international financial and political communities and the recent opinion polls give a chance to a positive result. However, it is less likely to happen, because there is not enough time to explain the Treaty to the people and to hold public debates about the issue – surveys showed that last time lack of appreciation was one of the main reasons for the rejection. Besides opinion polls are very volatile due to the uncertain domestic situation and an occasional rejection would cause a far worse situation to the country and to the EU.
There is an existing date for the EU parliamentary elections: 5 June 2009 and there were talks about the possibility to hold the second referendum and the EU parliamentary elections together, however it seems to be the least likely solution due to the possible misleading linkages and there would be higher political risks at stake.
The most likely date for the referendum will be in the time period after the EU parliamentary elections and before 31 October 2009 since the factor of uncertainty is significant in the recent months due to the public opinion which is extremely volatile and influenced by the governmental decisions about the restrictions and packages. A positive vote is more possible at a time when public opinion could calm down and there is time for the government to concentrate only on this issue.
The re-run of the Lisbon Treaty referendum and a positive outcome is crucial in the continuation of the EU reform process; it could determine the future of the EU and the future of the possible common measures concerning the financial crisis as well, so a carefully selected date for the re-run of the Treaty is as crucial as never before.