Treaty campaign needs vigour


WITH ONLY one month to go before the referendum on the fiscal treaty the Yes side has still to find its stride and main narratives for passing it while those opposed have more sure-footedly identified its shortcomings.

The large numbers of under-informed and undecided voters showing up in polling must warn the Government that this vote could readily be lost by a mediocre campaign. The Yes side urgently needs to increase its tempo and direction, not least by linking its views on economic growth and reform in the euro zone to the rapidly emerging voices elsewhere in Europe calling for such a change in direction.

Ireland’s substantial experience of referendums on European integration provides several major lessons on how to win or lose. It is too easy to say outcomes depend on the Government’s popularity or credibility rather than on the merits of the arguments either way. That is not the case for most of the recent EU referendums, and decisively not so in the second vote on the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 when it was carried despite collapsing support for the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition.

What made the difference then was a decisive swing towards the Yes side because of a far more focused campaign, negotiation of better terms from Brussels and a belief that it was better to be with the EU mainstream in a time of economic adversity.

Voters are rightly concerned about their knowledge of the issues and are fully entitled to a fair information effort. But they learn more from public political argument and personal policy engagement with families, friends and colleagues than from leaflets or treaty texts delivered to households. It does not help that polling shows support for the Government and levels of trust in EU institutions falling fast; but support for the euro remains high and voters are open to good arguments on how best it can be strengthened and made more effective to renew economic growth. That is very much in Ireland’s interest if the huge burden of debt is to be reduced. Such a strategy could not replace the existing need for budgetary consolidation but would supplement it with a more constructive approach.

That should involve linking up the Irish debate on the treaty with the rapidly shifting position elsewhere in Europe, where electoral politics, grave unemployment crises and popular movements are demanding alternative policies. These demands will be put to the test in coming months and years, showing that existing efforts to stabilise the euro zone, however necessary, are not sufficient. The ideas under discussion for greater fiscal union, such as project investment bonds and communitised euro bonds, deserve Ireland’s support.

That may well require further political and institutional change in the EU. In these circumstances voters need to be convinced it is better to remain part of the existing euro zone by voting Yes rather than marginalising Ireland from the negotiation of such a deepening system. The campaign in favour of the treaty needs a step change of energy and imagination to create a wider narrative in its favour.