Ireland's move

COMMENTARY International Economies

Ireland's move

Jun 19th, 2008 3 min read
Helle C. Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy

Her current work focuses on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

Last week, voters in Ireland proved that while their nation has a reputation as romantics, the Irish also possess a great deal of common sense. The majority of those who voted against the resurrected constitutional treaty of the European Union, now known as the Lisbon Treaty, told pollsters they did so because they did not understand what was in it. In other words they did what every consumer should do: refuse to sign a contract they did not understand.

At the time of the vote, just 8 percent of Irish voters thought they had a good understanding of what they were voting on. As the Irish commissioner for the EU internal market, Charlie McCreevy, stated after the vote: "The treaty refers to sub-paragraphs of former sub-paragraphs and other documents and there is no person this side of Timbuktu who would be in a position to understand it." He was on record as saying that he had not read it himself, though that did not prevent him from advocating its passage.

Other reasons given for the convincing 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent defeat of the Lisbon Treaty were to keep Ireland's power and sovereignty, to safeguard Ireland's neutrality, and address concerns that bigger countries and Eastern Europe were gaining too much power.

Ireland is now the third country in the European Union whose voters, when given the chance, have refused to endorse greater EU political integration. In 2005, the voters of France and the Netherlands turned down the previous incarnation of the EU constitution, shocking political leaders across the continent. What is so interesting about this phenomenon is that these are not the countries known derisively in Brussels for being hopelessly Euro-skeptical and difficult to deal with. That would be countries like Britain and Denmark.

Ireland has received huge amounts of development aid since joining the EU in 1973, and, in fact, has presided over the concluding negotiations of the original European constitutional treaty in June 2004, while holding the rotating EU presidency. France and the Netherlands are among the original core of the EU, part of the six countries that formed the European Coal and Steel Community, that later evolved into the European Common Market and the European Union.

What made the Irish, the French and the Dutch vote "no" was simply that they could. Reacting to the pressure applied by their political leaders, they exercised their democratic right to decide on their national future. In the furor of the aftermath of the vote, it has been argued that it is undemocratic to allow the 800,000 Irish to block the political project of over 300 million other Europeans.

However, given that the mandate for unanimity is written into the Lisbon Treaty, as it is into other EU documents, and given that the Irish were actually the only European voters allowed by their political leaders to have a popular referendum, this argument does not wash.

What is clearly undemocratic is that the "European project," as it is fondly known by Europe's leaders, has always been elitist in nature. In the aftermath of World War II, the political leadership of Europe saw economic integration, particularly of France and Germany, as the way to prevent war from breaking out again in Europe.

Since other European leaders over the first half of the 20th century had brought the continent to the point of unimaginable violence and devastation, this was a logical conclusion. One might also argue, though, that fostering a more soundly skeptical attitude in Europe to political power could have helped block the ambitions of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

The democratic deficit of the European Union should be an issue for reflection when Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen today has to face the music in Brussels in meetings with his European counterparts. And perhaps pigs will fly.

Instead, it is far more likely that new schemes will be thought up that will allow the other 26 EU countries to move ahead with political integration, pooh-poohing the will of actual voters. This would be similar to the reaction after the defeat of the European Constitution in 2005, after which the Lisbon Treaty was conceived as an "amendment" to existing treaties that would therefore not require those pesky popular referenda in member nations except Ireland. But at least the Irish were allowed to speak. The rest of Europe should listen.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.