Three months on, Brian Hogan, examines the Lisbon treaty vote and considers what the government should do next.
On Thursday, September 11th what many long suspected about June’s referendum was confirmed. Polling company Millward Brown released the results of a study commissioned by the government. It revealed that most of those who voted in the June referendum on Lisbon were either ignorant or misinformed as to what it contained.
The figures released are truly disturbing. Just under two-thirds (63 per cent) of voters either believed Lisbon had provisions introducing conscription into an ‘EU Army’, or didn’t know whether it did or not.
There was nothing of the sort in the document, its only provision on defence being a couple of vague solidarity clauses. The notion that the EU could or would introduce conscription would be laughable were it not for the number of people who seriously believed it.
Likewise, even though there was no mention of corporation tax in the treaty, 43 per cent of voters believed it would hand control of the rate over to the EU, or didn’t know if it would or not. Meanwhile, 67 per cent of those who voted thought that Lisbon would hand Ireland’s ability to decide its abortion policy to Europe. In reality, Lisbon mentioned nothing of abortion, meaning that the Nice protocol guaranteeing the Irish ban on abortion remains in force.
Arguably, the Treaty should never have been put to the people at all. Ireland is a representative democracy; the citizens entrust the business of governing to selected individuals, who deal with matters ordinary people do not have the time, patience or ability to address.
We do not have referenda on the Budget, other international treaties or such like, because fully informing four million people on such complicated issues and then holding a rational debate would be impossible. Matters like Lisbon are matters for a parliament to decide, not the whole populace.
However, thanks to a constitutional accident the likes of which exists in no other EU member state, Lisbon had to be put out for a vote. Thus, the people voted ‘no’ in fear of the draft or any myriad of other reasons that had nothing to do with the treaty at all.
A procedure designed for simple and clear-cut moral questions like ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to divorce asked a complicated legal question that ran to hundreds of pages. It was therefore virtually impossible for voters to verify anything for themselves, and so they did one of several things.
Some voted the way their chosen political representatives told them. This category was in a distinct minority. Some voted the way scaremongers told them to. Unsure that claims on conscription, abortion, etc. were false, they played it safe and voted no. Around half of those who voted no fell into this category.
Some voted on local or domestic issues like the economy or the US military’s use of Shannon, matters entirely irrelevant to the question that was put to them.
Others, of course, voted no on entirely reasonable and legitimate objections, such as a desire not to see the EU integrate any further, concern about domination by the larger members, or opposition to a common EU foreign policy.
Now the Government finds itself in a bizarre situation. Entrusted with the mandate to govern the country, it negotiated a treaty over two years, only to see the electorate who voted it into office veto it without having known much or anything about it.
Bizarre or not, reasonable or not, the vote in June stands. Whether we respect or disdain the decision, Bunreacht na hÉireann does not say that voters have to know what they are voting on. This cannot be changed, so what now?
A second referendum, although it is being considered by the government and assumed to be the next step by French President Sarkozy and others, is a non-runner. Even if accompanied by the proposed declarations or opt-outs on issues such as conscription, common defence, abortion and so on, Nice II has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths and out of sheer defiance at the idea of being asked again, they will likely vote it down.
Furthermore, considering the volume of information available in the broadsheet papers, on radio and on television before the first referendum, which was more than enough to inform anyone who bothered reading it, it is hard to see what more could be done to secure a better-informed debate next year. Some people just do not have the time to grasp such a huge issue; others do not have the patience.
Some of the reforms designed to make the EU governing process smoother could be put through by vote in the Dáil. This could be messy, though, generating resentment at issues popularly rejected being brought in
through the back door, while still falling short of reviving Lisbon itself.
The government’s best bet is to try and persuade its European colleagues to stop obsessing about grand, fancy, complicated treaties as if they were the essence of what Europe is all about. They are not.
Lisbon is not truly necessary for the EU to continue doing what it does best: fostering solidarity, freedom, and prosperity in a Europe moving on from centuries of war. The European ideal goes beyond the petty details of commissioner seats and economic harmonisation that fill the Lisbon Treaty.
Simple, shorter treaties aiming towards more concrete and coherent goals will be far easier to sell to the public and avoid the spectacle that occurred here last June of a government trying to give a two-month crash course in European law. The best way to solve this crisis is for Brian Cowen to persuade Europe to forget about the Lisbon Treaty and move on.