The Irish Vote "No" on Lisbon

Last Thursday, Ireland went to the polls to vote. At stake was whether to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, advancing Europe’s march toward greater integration. One provision of the treaty, for example, would have established the full-time position of European president and a foreign affairs chief. While the nature of their powers were largely undefined, they would have employed large bureaucracies and opened "European embassies" around the world. Other provisions would have streamlined cooperation on a range of matters, from energy policy to combating terrorism.

In order to be implemented, Lisbon had to be ratified by all 27 European Union members. The other 26 have either done so, or were in the process of doing so, through legislative action. Because Lisbon would have required a change of the Irish Constitution, a national referendum was required. Thus, it came to pass that tiny Ireland held the fate of Europe in its hands.

I visited Ireland in the lead up to vote and was struck by the intensity of the debate. Listening to both sides, those for and against, I thought it apt to borrow my brother’s depiction of the 2004 Bush-Kerry contest, which he termed the "Armageddon Election." To hear the opposing sides, the outcome was either "the death of Europe" (that’s how those in favor described a "no" vote) or the "death of Ireland" (which was how the opponents described the consequences of a "yes" vote).

There were rallies on street corners, town hall debates in every neighborhood and hamlet, endless discussions on radio talk shows, and editorials for and against. Every lamp post in Dublin featured at least two signs. In smaller towns there were fewer signs (in some cases due to local ordinances prohibiting signage), but they were still everywhere in sight.

Most of those signs in favor of Lisbon featured the face of a politician with slogans like "It’s good for the economy" or "Keep Ireland at the heart of Europe." Those opposed were far more dramatic. One featured a reprint of the famous headline announcing Irish independence with the slogan, "People died for your Freedom: Don’t throw it away. Vote NO."

A poll taken one month ago established that Lisbon was in trouble. It found that 35% favored passage, 18% were opposed, with 47% not knowing enough to decide. While some pro-Lisbon papers headlined the story to the effect that the treaty was ahead two-to-one, with only one month to go before the vote and one-half not knowing enough to decide, it was clear that Lisbon faced an uphill climb.

This was, in fact, the nub of it. Despite the valiant efforts of The Irish Times (the country’s leading newspaper) to explain the treaty and dispel fears (no, it wouldn’t: compromise Irish neutrality and force young men and women to fight in foreign wars; bring abortion to Ireland; weaken the rights of workers and farmers, etc.), the 300 page treaty was too dense and too vague to be easily understood.

All this led the opposition to adopt a tried and tested slogan: "If you don’t know, vote no." Two weeks ago there was evidence that the tide had turned, with a new poll showing that the "don’t know" voters were moving into the "no" camp. That trend continued and "Lisbon" was voted down by a 54%-46% margin.

Two lessons emerge:

A treaty for, by, and of the bureaucrats won’t be voted on favorably by a public that has grown mistrustful of bureaucrats. Those who wrote the treaty should have anticipated this problem. After all, this is not the first setback for an EU treaty. Popular votes in Ireland, the Netherlands, and France lost in earlier years, forcing a renegotiation of terms.

When confronted with vague "bureaucratese," fear of the unknown and mistrust will win – especially when issues of nationalism and independence at stake.

And this appears to have been the case with Lisbon in Ireland. Having won independence only in the last century, nationalism and independence remain powerful forces in Ireland. Fear of having their voices drowned out by the "larger states" of Europe and losing their hard-won independence was, for those who either didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t understand Lisbon, too big a price to pay.

Now that little Ireland has had its say, is this, as the "Armageddonists" warned, "the end of Europe," or will Ireland be punished for its vote? Neither is likely. It is a setback, to be sure, but an EU spokesperson told me that European integration is a slow but steady process that is still moving forward. There may be detours, twists and turns in the road, but the process moves on. One of two things will now occur. Either the Irish government will resubmit the treaty for a new vote, working harder to explain its meaning or secure a few changes, as they did in 2002 after incurring a loss in the case of an earlier EU treaty in 2001. Or the EU bureaucracy will take a lesson from the defeat, go back to the drawing boards, and present voters with a clearer voter-friendly document, and try again.