The Yes vote to Europe
THE RESOUNDING two to one majority for the Lisbon Treaty is, as Taoiseach Brian Cowen has said, good for Ireland and good for the European Union. It has reaffirmed that Irish people are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the European project and understand that our fate lies with, and at the heart of it, not least in the middle of the mother of all economic crises.
While one may have to go back to the Maastricht vote in 1992 to find a higher vote (69 per cent), for decades Irish voters surveyed by Eurobarometer have remained consistently among the EU’s three most supportive electorates.
Yet it was too easy to assume popular support – the public knows when it’s being taken for granted – and the failure last year was a salutary reminder to the Government and EU partners of the reality that European integration is increasingly seen as an elite project. It may have held up European business, and frustrated many of our partners, but the reballot and the debate and education it entailed will in fact do more to give long-term legitimacy to the EU, both here and in other member-states, than any amount of flashy PR. No campaigners have insisted that we have been voting not only for ourselves but for citizens across the continent.
What marks the second Lisbon vote out strikingly from the second Nice vote in 2002 is that, while the latter reversal largely reflected a massive increase in the Yes turnout, this time it is clear that although turnout played a part, the No vote declined by some quarter of a million. In other words at least a quarter of a million voters changed their vote from No to Yes. In part that was clearly due to the new context – the chill winds of recession which would isolate Ireland and the “guarantees”. Credit is also due to the critically important role played by activists from civic society, among Ireland for Europe, whose arguments made it possible to disconnect the treaty as an issue in the minds of voters from the performance of the Government. The calm and forensic dissection of fact from fiction by the Referendum Commission, and particularly its chairman, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, contributed substantially to moving the debate on from questions of fact to arguments about their merits.
The vote is also good for the political system and its legitimacy. The three previous referendums all exposed a gulf between political representatives – all overwhelmingly supportive of the treaties – and the public which found its concerns articulated by the political fringe. The chasm between the two could not last indefinitely without raising real questions about the representative nature of the Dáil. This vote has bridged that gap.
A real sense of crisis for the EU pervaded many capitals after the No decision in June of last year and there has been considerable relief at the decision, albeit nervousness that the Czech Republic’s president Vaclav Klaus will cause yet further delay to ratification. Ireland now has to reengage urgently with our partners to expedite the ratification and the immediate knock-on issues like the formation of a Commission.