Public can play crucial role in legitimising EU


IRELAND IS a cockpit for contending European political currents in the closing stages of the second Lisbon referendum. It is also a laboratory for contending explanations of how politicisation changes the European Union. Whatever the outcome, this campaign will have a lasting effect on dimensions of the EU and Ireland’s involvement in them.

Politicisation makes European issues part of domestic politics. The process has intensified since the 1990s. The EU’s boundaries changed with territorial enlargements, the growing scope of its policymaking had a greater impact on everyday life and there was more opportunity for public participation through referendums, general elections and media debates.

A process largely dominated by political elites and executives in the first three decades of European integration was transformed into one in which they pay more regard to the public. Hence the agonising over democratic deficits, legitimacy and political reforms over the last decade. Lisbon is the culmination of those debates, which have oscillated between arguments over constitutionalising the EU and making it more efficient.

The treaty is an uneasy compromise between the approaches. It incorporates most of the institutional innovations contained in the constitutional treaty brokered during the Irish EU presidency in 2004, but it strips out the symbols and unitary structures which would have required referendums elsewhere after the treaty was defeated in France and the Netherlands, in pursuit of potentially more effective policy outcomes.

Implicit in this is a desire by some executive elites and theorists to put the political genie back in the bottle. They fear politicisation of EU affairs will undermine this consensual system. Such public contestation cannot be confined to policies within it, but is bound to spill over into whether or not the EU is a good thing, they feel.

This can be seen in the identity wars over immigration, citizenship and religion that politicise “who we are” questions in a rash of populist nationalisms and far-right movements. When these interact with left/right contests between the winners and losers of integration policies, it is a volatile brew, evident in the No campaign.

In that case, the system would be unsustainable as it is not able to withstand both contests simultaneously. Instead, governments should rely on achieving better policy outcomes together in fields like energy, climate change and economic co-ordination that are capable of improving public welfare at domestic level if its future legitimacy is to be secured.

Public participation, whether by referendums, left/right contests or arguments over cultural inclusion should be minimised.

Other political practitioners and theorists disagree profoundly with this analysis, saying it is impossible to roll politicisation back. Instead, contestation and competition about EU affairs should be welcomed and channelled into new democratic practices.

Due to its history, Lisbon makes only a modest contribution to this endeavour, largely by strengthening European and national parliamentary co-decision and oversight on EU policymaking. There is also provision for citizen initiatives.

Although Lisbon introduces more democratic accountability, the treaty does not enable or inhibit politicisation.

On this alternative reading, the process will continue irrespectively, reflecting political, social and cultural forces already mobilised and the need for established parties and executives to deal with them. It is therefore a mistake to exaggerate the effects of the treaty text on political practice, since this has more to do with the balance between the left and right in European politics.

A powerful argument can be made that if this does not happen, EU policymaking will be sub-optimal, because choices have to be made between the winners and losers of integration. This is best done by public deliberation, predominantly left/right competition and more transparent relationships between voting, leadership and policy choices.

Otherwise, policies will not be accepted and the system will gradually destabilise. Within this paradigm a separate argument holds that such policy and regulatory competition needs to be more decentralised and flexible between varying territorial and policy interests as it can be shown empirically that diversity enhances effectiveness.

Although the treaty is relatively neutral on politicisation, the setting in which it takes place would be deeply affected by Ireland’s vote. If it is a Yes, the system’s legitimacy would be enhanced. There would be more incentives and opportunities for developing its collective politics in coming years, based on an established political and economic architecture and on debate and contestation in rather than of it. In contrast treaty referendums are zero-sum events, empowering extremes and inhibiting balanced judgments.

If it is a No, politics would be concerned with the emergence of a tiered EU system. Ireland would be consigned to the slipstream of a new Conservative-ruled UK, losing the genuine independence brought by EU membership.

Lisbon’s admittedly imperfect compromise between contending political left/right and identitarian forces would not be available in this setting. It follows that in deciding on it, the best should not be made the enemy of the good.