'No' to the EU Why Europe Should Listen to Ireland

Ireland shot down the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum held on Thursday. Already, EU politicians are branding the Irish as ingrates. But it is exactly that kind of arrogance which helped lead to the Irish "no" in the first place.

By Sebastian Borger in London

It was a process that began seven years ago. Meeting after difficult meeting, compromise after painful compromise, members of the European Union hammered out a new set of rules aimed at improving the way the EU functions.

Ballot boxes in Ireland did not contain the message that Brussels wanted to hear.

Ballot boxes in Ireland did not contain the message that Brussels wanted to hear.

In 2004 -- at a time, ironically, when Ireland held the rotating European Council presidency -- the process resulted in a European Constitution. But in 2005, the constitution idea was rejected by the French and the Dutch. Still, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to breathe new life into the EU reform last year. On Friday, though, with most of the results in from the Lisbon Treaty referendum held in Ireland, it looks like the process has once again been dashed.

With 29 of 43 constituencies reporting the results of the Thursday vote, 53.5 percent of those casting ballots have rejected the treaty with 46.5 percent voting in favor. Because all 27 EU member states have to approve the Lisbon Treaty for it to be adopted, the Ireland vote single-handedly derails the agreement.

Brussels is disappointed -- and furious. When France and Holland rejected the EU constitution three years ago, it sent the alliance into two years of soul searching. This time around, EU functionaries thought they had satisfied doubts about the depth of democracy in the EU -- and about concerns that too much power was being centralized in Brussels.

So far, accusations of Irish ingratitude have been muted. But it likely won't stay that way for long. Already on Monday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a diplomat not always known for his diplomacy, said that Ireland itself would be the first victim of its own referendum. "They have benefited more than others," Kouchner said on RTL radio. "It would be very, very awkward if we were not able to count on the Irish, who have often counted on Europe."

At first glance, Kouchner has a point. The island nation of 4.3 million has received billions of euros worth of subsidies from Brussels during its 35-year-old membership in the European Union. In recent years, Ireland's economy has enjoyed rapid growth -- indeed, the so-called "Celtic Tiger" will even soon become a net payer to the European Union. Instead of people flowing out of Ireland looking for work, Europeans from all over the continent are now flowing in.

But there is more to it than that. Kouchner's comments assume that anyone who is pro-Europe must necessarily be in favor of the Lisbon Treaty. At the same time, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and others from the pro-treaty camp have complained that the "no" camp in Ireland often focused on issues that had nothing to do with the Lisbon Treaty. So was the vote about the document at hand? Was it about Ireland's membership in the European Union or the future of the EU itself? Or was it about something else entirely?

Listen to the Irish themselves and it becomes clear that they remain, for the most part, committed Europeans. In the run up to Thursday's referendum, though, the country posed two questions born of pragmatism: Is this treaty good for us? And: Are we happy with the current development of the EU? Both questions are ones which many millions of Europeans would likely have responded to with "no." Had they been asked.

Supporters of the treaty argued that the EU needs to "function better," and that the Lisbon Treaty would help it do so. Opponents, though, responded by pointing out that the institutions in Brussels didn't exactly collapse after the French and the Dutch rejected the EU constitution in 2005. And voters instinctively suspect that behind all the talk of "functioning better" lies a process that makes them uneasy, namely that the political elite are continuously working to increase European integration.

The treaty did indeed call for some changes to knit Europe closer together. One provision was for a "president" who would serve for two-and-a-half years to replace the current system whereby the presidency rotates every six months. Still, calling the position a president is something of a misnomer in that heads of government from the 27 member states would still have had most of the say. The treaty also called for the position of foreign minister, though it avoided that title. The European Court of Justice and the European Parliament would also have gained additional powers.

But there were specifically Irish fears which played into the "no" vote as well -- fears which proved difficult to dispel. The Lisbon Treaty, its opponents never tired of pointing out, would have lessened the voting leverage of smaller EU members and would thus have been bad for Ireland. Furthermore, Ireland, like the other 26 EU members, would have had to do without its own EU commissioner at times due to a provision in the treaty to shrink the size of the European Commission. Such a loss would not be a big deal for bigger countries like the UK or Germany, whose influence in Brussels is secure. For a small country like Ireland, however, it was clearly a consideration.

But the argument that perhaps resonated the most was the specter -- called into being by those opposed to the Lisbon Treaty -- of Brussels eventually passing a uniform tax code for the EU. Ireland, after all, was able to kick start its boom by offering generous tax breaks to investors from the US and elsewhere. Even the slightest hint that Ireland could lose control of its own tax policy was enough to prick up Irish middle-class ears.

Most importantly, however, the discussion leading up to Thursday's referendum was intense. And even if many of the issues raised had little to do with the Lisbon Treaty, Irish voters were the only ones able to vote and Ireland was the only country of 27 where an intense public debate took place. Their verdict on the project of European integration should be carefully considered.

Bernard Kouchner-style arrogance, in any case, should be avoided at all costs. Talk of Irish ingratitude or arguments that referenda are unsuitable in the EU would merely increase the already wide gulf between the EU elite-o-crats and the voting public.

That, though, looks to be exactly what will happen. Already, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have said that ratification of the Lisbon Treaty should continue as planned -- as though the Irish referendum never took place. But for the EU -- which sings the praises of democracy and does what it can to improve democratic institutions in places like Turkey -- that would be the wrong way to go.

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