Engaging with public will help to ratify treaty


WORLD VIEW:It was mainly official Ireland that learned these lessons between the two Nice referendums. In fact, the No vote as a proportion of the electorate reduced from 21 to 19 per cent between the referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty in 1998 and Nice 1, and then to 18 per cent in Nice 2 - predominantly the same people. It made all the difference that turnout increased from 34 to 49 per cent between the two Nice votes. That extra half million voters were nearly all Yes supporters, mobilised by a much more effective campaign, both politically and from civil society, writes Paul Gillespie

There was a seamless connection between winning the second referendum and planning for Ireland's EU presidency in January-June 2004. This was regarded as one of the best on record, highlighted by the EU enlargement from 15 to 25 member states in May 2004 and the completion of negotiations on the Constitutional Treaty in June.

Public opinion was better informed about and somewhat more favourable towards that treaty, reflecting the intensity of governmental involvement in it, much improved political deliberation through the all-party National Forum on Europe, better Oireachtas scrutiny and bureaucratic co-ordination.

It is puzzling, therefore, that current levels of public knowledge about the successor Lisbon Treaty should be so low less than six weeks ahead of the referendum on June 12th.

The Referendum Commission reports that only 20 per cent partially understand it. Why has public learning not been more sustained since 2004? Can the information and comprehension deficit be turned around in time to ensure a Nice 2 turnout?

The changing political context is one obvious explanation. After the constitutional treaty was rejected in the 2005 French and Dutch referendums, EU leaders entered a two-year "period of reflection", in which the issue was hardly discussed in public - although most member states had passed it in their parliaments.

Taking the treaty out of the public sphere inevitably reduced its political salience. When the negotiations resurfaced last year, it was in the context of a classical inter-governmental setting of secret rather than public diplomacy. The substantial continuity of content was obscured by the legal and technical language of treaty amendments.

In fact, when the amendments are consolidated into the new text, the two treaties are a perfectly readable, if necessarily complex package of legal rules and regulations. Their complexity is in fact a safeguard against rather than an enabler of the EU becoming a "federal superstate" .

The Treaty of Lisbon combines two treaties: the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The first has 40 pages and 55 articles, deals mainly with general principles, and can easily be read in an hour or so. The second is a longer treaty at 137 pages and 358 articles and deals mainly with policy implementation, qualifying the principles. The Charter on Fundamental Rights of the European Union's 12 pages and 54 articles are quite accessible.

And the accompanying annexes and protocols qualify them further. (They can be downloaded from www.iiea.com). Oireachtas legislation and national constitutions are frequently more inaccessible.

We will be deluged with information over the next few weeks, which will make a difference if it is consumed. But political learning is not just to do with the receipt of crammed information, but with how it is communicated, argued about and represented politically in media and other public spheres and in interpersonal discussion.

Research by Richard Sinnott of UCD shows this clearly in the comparison between Nice 1 and 2. He warns there is precious little time to generate such engagement between now and June 12th. The more public discussion focuses on the treaties' content and purpose to enable the newly-enlarged EU to operate more effectively in a global setting, the easier this will be.

Two points should be borne in mind during this period. Firstly, abstention rather than participation has been the predominant pattern of Irish electoral behaviour on European issues. For all their importance in policymaking, they are not salient for many voters, who cannot be bothered with them. Citizens rely on national politicians and civic leaders to handle, represent and cue issues into the media and public debate. If this doesn't happen, they won't vote.

The picture is complicated by the fact that the EU is still a contested project, and therefore lacks legitimacy among about one-fifth of the electorate. It is difficult to combine arguments about the boundaries and basic functions of the system with arguments about its policies.

Although Irish people say overwhelmingly that the EU is a good thing which has benefited this State, many remain indifferent to it. They do not understand that rejecting this treaty would not be cost free.

Secondly, it is all too easy in these circumstances to make the best the enemy of the good. The EU has been built incrementally and mostly by consensus and is a compromise between many different forces. Lisbon is imperfect, but better than the alternatives on offer.