Last Friday, Irish voters backed the European Union (EU) Lisbon Treaty by a 2 to 1 majority, 16 months after saying no to the document the first time around.
In the end, it was more about the Irish economy than the European Union (EU).
The result was a stunning 20% swing in favour of the Treaty, which is a replacement for the EU Constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005.
The Lisbon Treaty will create an EU President, Foreign Minister and diplomatic service, and transfer more areas of decision-making from national governments, like Ireland, to the EU level.Promoters of the Treaty argue it is necessary to ‘streamline’ decision-making in the 27-country union and enable it to act with a greater presence on the global scene.
Opponents regard this as a stealth power-grab enabling the European Commission – an unelected body – to acquire a greater say in how Europe is run.
One commonly-cited problem is Article 48, which opponents say will allow more ‘competencies’ (EU-speak for powers) to be transferred from national governments to EU level without additional treaties or public votes.
Ireland has been the only country to give its people a vote on the Treaty, which now awaits (expected) acceptance in the Czech Republic and Poland before acquiring legal force. The British Government could yet put the document to a popular vote.
After the first rejection, the embarrassed Irish Government went back to Brussels (EU capital) to come up with a package to sell the Treaty a second time.
A deal was struck providing Ireland with separate guarantees on issues such as Ireland’s low corporate tax rate, military neutrality, and the constitutional ban on abortion. But the Treaty itself was left intact.
Meanwhile the full extent of Ireland’s economic crisis was emerging.
In short, a group of politicians, bankers and builders had fuelled a mutually-beneficial property bubble during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom.
The main governing party, Fianna Fáil, has been in power since 1997, and is being widely-blamed for the economic collapse, though it is not the sole culprit, which has international and domestic causes.
The impact on jobs and growth figures has been devastating. Ireland’s budget deficit is high (12% of GDP), unemployment will hit 14% by the year’s end, and net emigration has resumed.
Hard times and fear for the future are behind the Yes swing, rather than concerns about the future of Europe.
The economic crisis was brought into the Treaty debate, despite having nothing to do with a document put together during a time of growth in both Ireland and Europe.
Both campaigns accused each other of lying. The pro-Treaty group alleged No campaigners told lies on minimum wage levels and abortion.
The No campaign responded by saying the power given to EU law by the Treaty – which includes a comprehensive ‘Charter on Fundamental Rights’ – could see Irish national laws challenged later, testing guarantees that their abortion law will be left alone.
The Yes campaign included all Ireland’s political parties, except for Sinn Féin.
As well as attacking No arguments as misleading, and labelling No campaigners as radicals, the Yes side capitalised on the deteriorating Irish economy, arguing that the Treaty was necessary for job creation and recovery.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso visited Ireland shortly before the vote, making dark noises such as “For investor confidence, it is important that there is certainty about the future of Ireland in the EU”, even though the Treaty did not affect Irish membership.
The pro-Treaty juggernaut comprised most of the Irish media, a pack of celebrity-fronted civil society groups, and was backed by money from high profile business people such as Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and Intel head Jim O’Hara.
O’Leary reversed his earlier opposition to the Treaty, admitting that he needed support for his bid to buy national airline Aer Lingus.
Other u-turns came from Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, who pushed for Yes, despite a previous statement that there shouldn’t be a second vote.
On top of support from the media, celebrities and businesspeople, the Yes side outspent the No campaign by 10 to 1, raising questions about the legality of European Commission intervention and various campaign expenditures, based on Irish referendum law.
The No side lacked the verve shown before the first Lisbon vote, and came across as a disparate coalition lacking overall leadership. Some under-the-surface differences between the groups have become public since the results were announced last Saturday.
The political consequences of repeatedly putting the same question to voters remains to be seen. In Ireland’s case, it appears that the 32% No voters are estranged from party politics, bar the small percentage that vote for Sinn Féin. With a national election looking imminent, this should make for an interesting time for Irish politics.
However, if the Lisbon Treaty passes into law, it will be difficult to justify a continued high media profile for national politics in Ireland or other small EU member-countries. The real power will lie elsewhere.
This power will be in the EU itself, as well as Germany, Britain and France, where Europe’s collective media will have to refocus its attention.
Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently based in Southeast Asia. His website is www.simonroughneen.com