Open Unionism


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Ireland, Europe and the Lisbon Treaty…

This Friday 2nd October, Irish voters go to the polls for a re-run referendum on the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty. It’s been just over a year since voters last went to the polls on this question. In June 2008 the voters said no to the Lisbon Treaty by a 53%-47% margin.

Last time round I’d have probably voted no if I’d been living back home, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then and with the Irish economy in such a calamitous state this time I’m leaning to the ‘yes’ side. If principles have a price, then a 12.4% drop in GNP and an 8.4% drop in GDP this year alone is good for starters…

I’m not terribly enthusiastic either way however, which is a strange place to find myself just days before polling day. As a bona fide political obsessive, on most issues I tend to hold fairly clear views. This referendum campaign seems different – with arguments that appeal, often strongly, to me on both sides. So in this post I’m not really going to be arguing one way or the other – I’ll just set out the most appealing arguments as I see them on both sides of the debate…

For me, the best reasons for voting yes are:

– I am fundamentally pro-European, although not pro- the current shape of EU institutions. As a southern unionist, I see myself as Irish and British and European – and I’m pro-European for many of the same reasons I’m pro-Union. I particularly liked what Alex Benjamin had to say here about the experience of working in the EU Parliament – “walking around the corridors in the Parliament hearing Finnish, French, Latvian, Dutch or Italian being spoken and having friends from all over Europe. This is, in essence, what Europe should be about: talking to each other, working together and sharing experience and experiences together…”

– Ireland is really in very deep economic trouble at the moment and we need all the friends we can get. There’s not a country on the globe unaffected by this Great Recession but Ireland’s been clobbered worse than almost everybody but Iceland. The ‘no’ campaign point out that Lisbon isn’t about the economy, but were we to reject it a second time it would certainly create continent-wide uncertainty and destabilise the wider European economy. It would also alienate a hell of a lot of folks whom we need as friends if our economy is ever to recover.

– Europe’s been great for Ireland – growing up in the 80s and 90s I well remember all the wee blue EU flag signs beside all the new roundabouts and dual-carriageways and what-not that were modernising our infrastructure. Europe gave us the fuel we needed to ignite the Celtic Tiger in the first place. It seems churlish to derail a continent-wide process given all that the EU has done for us.

– There are some real loons out there advocating a no vote – a deeply unappealing hodgepodge of economic right-wingers like Declan Ganley’s Vanitas Libertas, ultra-traditionalist ‘back to the 50s, dancing at the crossroads’ types like the Coir campaign, and ultra-nationalist types like Eirigi.

On the other hand, the best reasons which would tempt me to vote no are:

– It’s completely undemocratic to ask voters to vote again on pretty much the same deal barely a year after they’ve already said no. The requirement to hold a referendum on significant constitutional changes is one of the best features of the Irish constitution, and this idea that we’ve got to vote over and over until we give the ‘correct’ result really cheapens that. The ‘yes’ campaign posters tell us ‘its your choice’ – but is it really?

– There really is a huge democratic deficit in the EU institutions and Lisbon fails to address this. Worse, senior EU figures seem quite blind to the need to address the deficit. For instance former Irish EU Commissioner David Byrne had an article in the Irish Times the other day in which he claimed to be “mystified by those who maintain that the EU is undemocratic”, before going on to describe how Commissioners get appointed by member state governments, rather than by the voters. He does point out that the EU Parliament can censure the Commission (thereby requiring it’s resignation) – however it is only the Commission as a whole that can be censured – the EU Parliament doesn’t have a right to force any individual Commissioner to resign.

– I especially disagree with the idea of having an EU president not directly elected by EU citizens. If Blair or anyone else wants the job they should be prepared to put in the hard yards campaigning for votes down the boreens of Galway and among Polish farmers, Spanish fishermen, Swedish intellectuals etc etc.

– Some political figures whom I greatly respect – such as the indefatigable Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins – are strongly against it, on the grounds of protecting workers rights and public services and avoiding EU militarisation. Balancing this there are also many on the Left in favour of the Treaty and it’s comprehensive Charter of Fundamental Rights – and the European Trade Union Congress, ICTU and SIPTU all urge a yes vote.

– The pro-Treaty argument too often seems to boil down to a simplistic ‘Vote Yes to Europe’ exhortation – a not-too-distant cousin of the tired old NI syndrome of pinning a red-white-blue or green-white-orange rosette on a donkey and asking people to vote for it.

So there you have it. On the whole I’m leaning towards the ‘yes’ side, but without much great enthusiasm. The state of the economy will, I suspect, be the decisive factor for many voters on referendum day.

Last time round the opinion polls at this stage of the campaign had just begun to swing round to the ‘no’ side. This time the ‘yes’ seems to be holding onto a clear lead – although the ‘no’ is gaining ground and the gap does appear to be narrowing.

For Northern Ireland, even if the yes side wins in the Republic and the Treaty gets ratified across the EU, that may not be the end of the matter. David Cameron is coming under immense pressure from his euro-sceptic wing to hold a retrospective UK referendum on the Treaty, even if it has already been ratified by the time he comes to power. If such a referendum were to be lost (as I think quite likely) it would mark a real break between the UK and EU.

So whichever way things go on Friday it’s clear that Lisbon, as a political issue, has plenty of life left in it yet…


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5 Responses

  1. Chekov says:

    I assume you mean the Republic of Ireland? I’m in ‘Ireland’ and I’ll not be getting a vote on Lisbon.

  2. however it is only the Commission as a whole that can be censured – the EU Parliament doesn’t have a right to force any individual Commissioner to resign.

    I don’t know of any parliament that can directly sack an individual member of the executive.

    I especially disagree with the idea of having an EU president not directly elected by EU citizens.

    You’ve bought into the No rhetoric on this one. There is no such thing as an “EU President” – Lisbon splits out the job of “President of the Council” (which already exists as an ex-officio post) into a full-time job. The term “President” is misleading – it probably should have been called “Secretary General”…

  3. David says:

    Hi Chekov – fair point, no offence (or territorial claim) was intended!

    Andrew – would it not go some way towards narrowing the democratic deficit if the EU parliament was able to sack individual commissioners? After all it’s in a fairly unique position to begin with in that, unlike other parliaments, the executive gets chosen by an external group (the member state governments)…

    People might take more interest in the machinations of the EU parliament if they felt their vote made a difference there, or if the Commission’s make-up reflected that of the EU parliament – i.e. this would mean a centre-right Commission at present, and possibly a centre-left Commission in future if the PES and the Left-Green parties get their act together?

  4. Richard Webster says:

    You’re absolutely correct in terms of this issue not going away. The issue of Europe is never off the radar of the Conservative Party for longer than a few months at most, and that’s only when the leadership actively suppresses any discussions!

    More seriously though, the impact of the Lisbon Treaty is really getting a little blown out of proportion – when compared with the provisions set out in previous EU Treaties which still haven’t been realised. The European Court of Justice is terrible at upholding the free trade agenda which formed (in my opinion) the strongest argument for the organisation in the first place.

    Article 49 of the EC Treaty grants citizens the freedom to access goods and services from across the continent without restrictions (tariffs or embargos). Yet in terms of online gambling, the French government runs a state monopoly over the industry, preventing its citizens using other bookmakers from outside France, which reduces competition and drives up prices for consumers everywhere. The European Court of Justice apparently supports this situation (1999 Zenatti, 2009 Bwin v Portugal), making a mockery of the free trade agenda, and European treaties. There’s a petition at to challenge this.

  5. lighthouse says:

    The question is too:
    Will all of the rest of Europe really accept a second No from Ireland…

    Several are saying they’ll go their own way, not let Ireland stop them – and it is to some extent understandable, although the
    initial position called for everyone’s agreement.

    In such a case, what’s left for Ireland?
    That’s right, yet another vote…

    For those who don’t know the ‘story’ behind this vote…

    A Bedtime Story for all Nice Children and not so Maastricht Adults

    The Happy Family

    Once upon a time there was a family treaty-ing themselves to a visit in Lisbon.
    On the sunny day that it was they decided to go out together.
    Everyone had to agree on what they would do.
    “So”, said Daddy Brusselsprout “Let’s all go for a picnic!”
    “No”, said Aunt Erin, “I don’t want to”.
    Did they then think of something else, that they might indeed agree on?
    Oh yes they did?
    Oh no they didn’t!
    Daddy Brusselsprout asked all the others anyway, isolating Erin, and then asked her if instead, she would like to go with them to
    the park and eat out of a lunch basket….

    Kids, we’ll finish this story tomorrow, and remember, in the EU yes means yes and no means yes as well!

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