Why Irish Voters Rejected the Lisbon Treaty

Irish voters on June 12 said ‘No' to the superpower ambitions of European political elites, who want all 27 member-states of the European Union to ratify the 269-page (about 3000 pages with annexes) Lisbon Treaty that would turn the EU into a bureaucratic superstate. Ireland was the only country to submit the "Reform Treaty" to a popular vote; all other member states of the EU intend to ratify the document through parliamentary procedures. Although by EU law the Irish vote (53.4 percent said ‘No' and 46.6 percent said ‘Yes') should kill the treaty (because it requires unanimous approval to come into effect), European politicians will almost certainly find a way to keep it alive.

One of the main objectives of the virtually unreadable treaty is to turn the EU into a "global geopolitical actor" that can counterbalance the United States on the world stage. To achieve this, European elites say the EU needs to speak with "one voice" in international affairs. In this context, the new treaty is designed to create the job position of (an unelected) European president as well as a powerful European foreign minister. It would also establish a European diplomatic corps with European embassies and a European army.

As many observers of European politics know, democracy does not come easy on a continent where European elites view themselves as an aristocracy entitled to rule over the ignorant masses. Indeed, the entire European social welfare state has been built upon the unspoken quid pro quo of "bread and circuses" (ie, the cradle-to-grave nanny state) for the general populace, in exchange for their loyal submission to the political and intellectual classes.

Thus it should come as no big surprise that the word ‘No' does not exist in the European political lexicon. After voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the European Constitution (of which the Lisbon Treaty is an almost exact replica) in 2005, European elites famously advised the miscreants to keep voting until they come up with the right answer.

So how about this time around? Will European politicians, who say they want to bring "Europe" closer to the people, accept the will of Irish voters?

What follows is a brief summary of comments made by select European leaders, both before and after the Irish referendum. It not only provides an explanation as to why Irish voters are turned off by the Lisbon Treaty, but it also sheds some light on the state of democracy in contemporary Europe.

Before the referendum:

  • Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said that it did not matter if people had not read the treaty (he had not read it either, he admitted) and did not understand it because they should trust their elected leaders.
  • French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner threatened Irish voters if they failed to approve the treaty: "The first victims would be the Irish. They have benefited more than others," he warned.
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "There will be no treaty at all if we had a referendum in France."
  • Sarkozy said: "When the people say ‘No', we cannot say the people are wrong. We must ask why they said ‘No'.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "Naturally [the Lisbon Treaty] is still far from the clarity of our constitution on how powers are really delineated."
  • Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing said: "The difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content ... the proposals in the original constitutional treaty are practically unchanged. They have simply been dispersed through old treaties in the form of amendments. Why this subtle change? Above all, to head off any threat of referenda by avoiding any form of constitutional vocabulary ... But lift the lid and look in the toolbox: all the same innovative and effective tools are there, just as they were carefully crafted by the European Convention."
  • D'Estaing said: "Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly ... All the earlier proposals will be in the new text, but will be hidden and disguised in some way."
  • D'Estaing said: The approach "is to keep a part of the innovations of the constitutional treaty and to split them into several texts in order to make them less visible. The most innovative dispositions would pass as simple amendments of the Maastricht and Nice treaties. The technical improvements would be gathered in an innocuous treaty. The whole would be addressed to Parliaments, which would decide with separate votes. The public opinion would therefore unknowingly adopt the dispositions that it would not accept if presented directly."
  • Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said: "The substance of what was agreed in 2004 has been retained. Really, what is gone is the term ‘constitution'."
  • Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said: "Of course there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact?"
  • Juncker said: Fears connected with the treaty "most often stem from the fact that we use a language incomprehensible for ordinary people."
  • Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht said: "The aim of the Constitutional Treaty was to be more readable; the aim of this [Lisbon] treaty is to be unreadable... The Constitution aimed to be clear, whereas this treaty had to be unclear. It is a success."
  • European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: "Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organization of empires. We have the dimension of Empire but there is a great difference. Empires were usually made with force with a center imposing diktat, a will on the others. Now what we have is the first non-imperial empire."
  • Barroso said: "If a referendum had to be held on the creation of the European Community or the introduction of the euro, do you think these would have passed?"
  • Barroso said: "Referendums make the process of approval of European treaties much more complicated and less predictable...every member state [considering a referendum should] think twice"
  • Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said: "Those who are anti-EU are terrorists. It is psychological terrorism to suggest the specter of a European superstate."
  • A leaked February memo from the British Embassy in Dublin, which summarized a briefing about Irish government thinking over the referendum, reported that Irish diplomats described Sarkozy as "completely unpredictable". The memo emphasized that the campaign would not focus on the detail of the treaty because it was "largely incomprehensible to the lay reader." The Irish government wanted to hold the referendum in October 2008, but decided on an earlier date because of "the risk of unhelpful developments during the [six-month rotating] French Presidency [of the EU, which begins on July 1] - particularly related to EU defense - were just too great" and might alienate Irish voters.
  • Irish officials said they wanted "a helpful, low-profile" role from European officials in Brussels before the referendum on anything which might damage support for a ‘Yes' vote. European Commission Vice President Margot Wallstrom allegedly told Ahern that she was "willing to tone down or delay messages that might be unhelpful."
After the referendum:

  • Barroso said he had spoken to Cowen and agreed with him that the ‘No' vote was not a vote against the EU. "Ireland remains committed to a strong Europe," he said. "The treaty is alive. Ratifications [in other EU member states] should continue to take their course."
  • Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said: "I will invite the Irish prime minister to explain the reasons for the rejection of the treaty by the Irish people."
  • Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said: "We shall effectively look for ways to ensure it [the Lisbon Treaty] comes into force. Irrespective of the results of the referendum in Ireland ... Europe will find a way of implementing this treaty."
  • Juncker said: "This vote doesn't resolve any of the European problems; it almost makes every European problem bigger. It was a bad choice for Europe."
  • Sarkozy and Merkel issued a joint statement saying they "hope that the other member states will continue the process of ratification."
  • German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "The ratification process must continue. I am still convinced that we need this treaty."
  • French European Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet talked of finding a "legal arrangement" that would allow Ireland to ratify the treaty anyway.
  • British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the United Kingdom would press on with ratification, saying: "It's right that we continue with our own process."
  • At a June 13 press conference in Brussels, supposedly impartial (but frustrated and angry) reporters and other members of the European press corps accused European Commission Spokesman Johannes Laitenberger of not doing enough to refute the "myths and false rumors" that doomed the treaty in Ireland.
 Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group
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