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Ireland - Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty

Referendum on the Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty
2nd October 2009

Referendum on the Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty
2nd October 2009

07/09/2009 - Analysis

On 8th July last the Taoiseach (Prime Minister in Gaelic) announced that his country would be organising a 2nd referendum on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty on 2nd October – the latter was signed on 13th December 2007 in Lisbon by the heads of State and government of the 27 EU Member States. Ireland is the only state to have submitted the text to referendum, a procedure that is rendered obligatory by articles 46 and 47 of the Irish Constitution.

The country has held seven referendums on European issues: in 1972 on the country's membership of the European Economic Community (83.1% voted in favour), in 1987 on the Single Act (69.9% voted in favour), in 1992 on the Maastricht Treaty (69.1% voted 'yes'), in 1998 on the Amsterdam Treaty (61.74% said 'yes'). In 2001 the Irish initially rejected the Nice Treaty (53.87% voted 'no'), before finally approving it with 62.89% of the vote in a second referendum in 2002. Finally on 12th June 2008, 53.4% rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

Many analysts blamed the victory of the 'no' vote in 2008 on the poor communication policy employed with regard to the European Treaty and the inadequate campaign undertaken by the political parties, who were mainly in favour of ratification. The second referendum will take place within a very different context from that of June 2008. Indeed, Ireland has been greatly weakened by the international economic crisis which has hit it hard (the GDP is due to contract by 10.75% in 2009). Many politicians and Lisbon Treaty supporters hope that this crisis has led to raising Irish awareness of the advantages that belonging to the EU has provided - since the adoption of the euro has certainly protected the island from devaluation and the kind of situation experienced by Iceland.
"This time we are going to undertake a better electoral campaign," indicates Prime Minister Brian Cowen (Fianna Fail, FF) - a campaign in which the government intends to invest €4.2 million. Since the government does not come back from recess until 16th September it will be only short in duration.
The Irish referendum will be closely followed abroad, notably in Poland and the Czech Republic, two States whose eurosceptic Presidents have been refusing to ratify the Lisbon Treaty which has been approved by their respective governments. Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice, PiS) and Vaclav Klaus (Civic-Democratic Party, ODS) recently said that they were waiting for the Irish referendum result before signing themselves; the Polish Head of State stated that he would do so on the day that the Irish said "yes".

Guarantees Achieved

"Our partners understand that we cannot and must not present the same package to the Irish as the last time. They understand our situation and our desire to respond positively to the issues that were raised," said Dick Roche FF, European Affairs Minister. In view of the second referendum the Irish government achieved several guarantees from its European partners. These were various and concern defence (upkeep of the country's military neutrality), social affairs (upkeep of measures included in the Irish Constitution on the right to life, education and the family) together with taxation (no modification to the present competences of the EU Member States in this domain). The text also indicates that Ireland will retain its Commissioner in a smaller European Commission and confirms the importance granted by the EU to social progress, the protection of workers' rights, to public services (qualified as instruments of social and regional cohesion) and the responsibility of the Member States with regard to healthcare.

With regard to defence the Irish government said that it was going to vote in a new law specifying its commitment to military neutrality before the second referendum. This will stipulate that the country will take part in projects it believes beneficial and which strengthen Ireland's traditional role in peacekeeping operations. Prime Minister Brian Cowen stressed that the participation of the Irish army in the operations organised by the European Defence Agency (EDA) would be conditioned by the agreement of the government and the Dail Eireann (Lower Chamber of Parliament).
"I am satisfied that we succeeded in adopting the Irish guarantees – it makes me very optimistic about winning a 'yes' to the referendum," said the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso after negotiations between the 27 in June last. "We achieved what we wanted, I believe that we now have a solid base on which to ask the Irish to ratify the treaty," said Brian Cowen.

The legal shape these guarantees will take still has to be examined. The Taoiseach wanted them to feature in a protocol, which would have meant their ratification by all of the EU Member States. "I am asking for a clear and unequivocal commitment that later on, after the application of the Lisbon Treaty, the guarantees included in this decision will be attached to the European treaties via a protocol," he declared. The leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, then threatened to submit the treaty that has already been ratified by the UK to referendum, an election whose result according to all the polls, could not be guaranteed. This explains why British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Labour Party), extremely weakened by the international economic crisis and several domestic scandals, was one of the most reticent in accepting any further ratification of the Lisbon Treaty fearing that a debate would open on the subject in a time of crisis that is particularly favourable to the eurosceptics.

Finally it was decided that the commitments will feature in a protocol which provides them with legal value. But in no way does this modify the content or the application of the Lisbon Treaty and therefore does not require any further ratification before it is implemented. This will occur at a later date when the EU enlarges again: the protocol will therefore be attached to the membership treaty of Croatia which may very well be the next State to join the EU.

The Treaty Supporters' Electoral Campaign

The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty represents "one of the most important national issues since the independence of Ireland in 1922," declared Brian Cowen to MPs. "The Irish cannot afford to say "[i]no" again. The victory of the "yes" will be the only aim of our work and our attention. No one can underestimate the importance and the magnitude of this challenge for our country,[/i]" he said.

The government comprising the Fianna Fail, the Progressive Democratic Party and the Greens suffered defeat during the local and European elections on 5th June last winning only 27% of the votes locally. For the first time since 1932 Fianna Fail lost its position as the country's leading political force to the benefit of Fine Gael (FG). The Greens lost 10 of their representatives in Dublin in the local election and won no seats in the European Parliament.
To a large extent the economic crisis that is seriously affecting the island explains the electoral failure of the ruling parties. Indeed Brian Cowen has pushed through two austerity plans over the last few months combining tax increases and reductions in social aid and pensions. Civil servants' salaries have decreased by 7% on average over 2008 and all salaries are due to decline by 3% in 2009 (and by 1.6% in 2010). Ireland has been exposed to massive unemployment again. From 4% in August 2007 it now lies at 12.2% (July 2009), its highest level in 14 years and this is due to rise to 17% by the end of 2010. The government is trying to reduce State spending: the number of Secretaries of State was reduced from 20 to 15, remuneration of ministers and secretaries of State, MPs and of the president of Parliament has been reduced, and travel expenses have been cut by 25% and other expenses by 10% and the general spending regime is now more transparent.
Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin (FF), said that the battle would be a hard one in achieving the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. "Before us we have a major challenge and it will be a closely run campaign that will require every resource, belief and passion of those who are in the 'yes' camp. I have never had any illusions and ratification will be difficult to achieve but I think we can do it."

The Greens, Fianna Fail's government partner, led by Environment Minister John Gormley approved the ratification of the European text 241 votes in favour, 107 against, i.e. 66% and this time committed to defending the "yes" vote. In 2008 the Lisbon Treaty was approved by 63% and the Greens decided to play the card of neutrality. "We can campaign with other European ecologist parties, which we did not do last time," said Eamon Gilmore.
The opposition parties do not have an easy task. Whilst they achieved a victory over the government in the last election they must at all costs avoid using the referendum on 2nd October as a means to distinguish themselves from the ruling parties and campaign with them.

The government and all of the political parties understood how much the support of social partners, which in June 2008 took advantage of the referendum to snatch certain concessions from the government which had nothing to do with the Lisbon Treaty, was vital for victory. Civil society and the business world are more motivated in this second referendum which was not the case in 2008. From July on "Ireland for Europe" led by the chairman of the European Movement and former chair of the European Parliament Pat Cox, Women for Europe, Generation Yes etc ... launched their own 'yes' campaign.
The European Trade Union Confederation called on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, a supporter of the "no" in 2008 to provide its support to the "yes". "Before voting "no" think of the others in Europe who are hoping for a "no" victory: the British Conservatives, the ignorant nationalists, racists and fascists. Europe is a much better choice for the workers than all of these groups could ever be," stressed John Monks, Secretary General of the ETUC, who added, "Europe is not a menu "à la carte" from which you take what you like. It is a complete "package" which has achieved great things for Ireland and others and which will do more for us to emerge from this economic crisis." "We have to rectify the budgetary deficit, ensure that liquidities are moving adequately again in the economy and re-establish economic activity in order to minimize the scourge of unemployment. To achieve this we must remove all doubt about our country's position," indicated Prime Minister Brian Cowen adding, "Europe and the Lisbon Treaty are not perfect but this is not a credible reason to reject it or go against significant improvements which they are specifically offering workers."

Over 30 business associations have rallied within Business for Europe to support the "yes" vote. "Yes" would be a positive sign to foreign investors and our European economic partners. The ratification of the treaty is vital for Ireland's economic recovery," maintained Danny McCoy, Director General of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC). The chairmen of the Small Businesses Association, Aidan O'Boyle, and of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) Padraig Walshe also called for a "yes" vote. The farmers are still divided over the issue even though the 53 members of the executive board voted unanimously in favour of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in July, recalls Padraig Walshe. In his opinion the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be negotiated over the next few years and "it is more important for us to be involved in the negotiations rather than being left on the sidelines as the case would be if we vote no."
On 26th August Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair, Europe's leading low-cost airline called on the Irish to vote in support of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. He announced that his company would help fund the "yes" campaign granting it 500,000 €. "I believe that Ireland has to give Europe a "yes" otherwise our economic future will be destroyed by poor government and administration and by the specific interests of the union leaders in the civil service," he said.

According to a poll 84% of companies' general managers believe that the "no" on 12th June 2008 damaged Ireland's image. All of them (98%) believe that their country's membership of the EU is vital for the performance of the national companies. "A second rejection would be bad for our economy," declared Foreign Minister Micheal Martin adding, "never has the moment been better to confirm our commitment clearly to the EU. Our future requires us to set our position firmly at the heart of the Union."

Brendan Butler, Director of the Irish Employers' Confederation said that the guarantees achieved by the government were the first step towards a green light for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. "The vote in the next referendum will define the future of Ireland's relations with Europe and therefore with the world, ratification is more important than ever before," he declared.

The "No" Camp's Crusade

Although Fianna Fail suffered during the most recent European and local elections they did succeed in hitting the 2008 "No" camp hard. Sinn Fein (SF), the only parliamentary party to support the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty suffered defeat – Mary-Lou McDonald even lost her seat as MEP. In addition to this Libertas, a European movement created and led by Declan Ganley lost his wager and only won one seat (Philippe de Villiers in France) in the European Parliament whilst he had counted on winning 100. Even he failed to win a seat. "I regret nothing, I think I did what was necessary, I mean I tried to win a seat. I sat the test with the inhabitants of North-West Ireland but I didn't pass," he concluded. Before the election he said he would give up his campaign against the Lisbon Treaty if he did not win the MEP seat he so desired.

The "no" camp believes that this second election is useless and even scandalous. "People said "no" and it is the same treaty that they are being presented with now," repeats Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. "The Irish are being asked to vote on the same text with the same content. This time round there is only the promise of a protocol that will be attached to the treaty later on. The Lisbon Treaty is bad when it was put to the people last year. It is still bad this year," adds Mary-Lou McDonald who says that the guarantees achieved mean nothing and that "the government has not tried to make safe the changes that were introduced into the text." The "no" camp launched its campaign on 18th August highlighting the fact that the Lisbon Treaty would in their opinion worsen the situation of workers and lead to more cuts in social aid. According to Sinn Fein and the Socialist Party (SP), a Trotskyite movement that is not represented in Parliament, the text would increase the chances of the Irish government raising taxes and reducing public services in view of bringing the budgetary deficit below 3% of the GDP. "In any case the government will increase taxes," indicated Mary-Lou McDonald, "we can see the collusion between the government and the demands made by the European treaties that maintain that competition and the market have to rule over everything." She added "we are going to campaign against this government and its policy of rewarding its banker friends whilst it penalizes the most vulnerable and ordinary working people."

Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who has been particularly unpopular over the last few months, cannot really afford to lose this referendum. "I shall not resign if the "no" wins," he maintains. Political analysts believe that although the Taoiseach succeeded in surviving the onslaught of June 5th (local and European elections) he may not survive the deathblow of a second "no" to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.
According to the latest poll by TNS/MRBI published on 3rd September by the daily Irish Times, 46% of the Irish were going to approve the Lisbon Treaty whilst 29% said they were against it. However the most recent poll shows that the "yes" is losing ground. Just one month before the election the population's support has declined by 8 points in comparison with last May. Likewise the share of the undecided has increased by 7 points to reach 25%. "The striking point about this poll it that most of those who have left the "yes" camp have joined the "undecided" rather than the "no" camp," indicates Stephen Collins, head of the political department at the Irish Times.
Although a majority of the Irish support the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, many are prepared to use this second referendum to protest against the government which they hold responsible for the present economic crisis. The victory of the "yes" vote is possible but it is far from being guaranteed and no one can say that the present trend will turn over the next few weeks as was the case in the weeks preceding the referendum on 12th June 2008.

Source: The Irish Times
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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