No outsider has any right to tell the Irish how to handle Lisbon


Chances are growing that Ireland's voters will not be alone in saying No to Lisbon for long, writes William Hague.

THE RESULT of the Irish people's verdict on the Lisbon Treaty is still reverberating across Europe - and how could it not? With people in every other European country denied any direct say on the treaty, Irish voters had to speak for every European.

The hope that they would give voice to concerns held across the Continent was felt acutely on the other side of the Irish Sea, where in a breach of an election manifesto promise, the Labour government has denied British voters any say on the Lisbon Treaty at all, either in a referendum or at a general election.

The Irish people not only spoke for those who were not given a voice; they also spoke with courage. It was no surprise to Ireland's well-wishers that threats that Ireland would suffer should the "wrong" answer be given were counterproductive, but it is shocking that in today's Europe senior figures in European governments should seek to influence another nation's democratic decision with bullying language.

It is now incumbent on politicians across Europe to appreciate the meaning of Ireland's vote and to absorb its lessons. The Irish public has, if anything, been inundated with commentary from those outside Ireland who were unhappy at the result. Now that Irish voters have made their choice, it may also be useful if those outside Ireland who thought the Irish people came to the right decision were to set out their understanding of what has happened and made some suggestions for what Europe should do next. This is one attempt to do that.

First, it is clear that Ireland's No was not a No to Europe, any more than the French and Dutch rejections were; it was a pro-European No. There is no evidence that this vote represented a rejection of the EU or its ideals: a continent united in peace and co-operation.

Second, it has been claimed that the No was simply the result of an inexpert public's inability to see through the treaty's complex legal language to the shining merits of its content.

That so many among Europe's political elites' first response has been to dismiss the referendum result as an outrage from a country supposedly ungrateful to its Brussels benefactors and whose voters' decision must shortly be reversed is deeply troubling. It is an extremely patronising view.

Nor does it strike me as a healthy democratic reaction. When voters reject a cherished proposal it is wiser for politicians to ask, not "why have the people got it so wrong", but "how have we got it wrong". If the argument is that treaties are too complicated for voters - in other words that referendums on EU treaties are only justified if the voters say Yes - one might as well argue against elections on the grounds that most voters aren't experts on tax law or the finer points of education policy.

Neither is blaming Lisbon's failure on popular incomprehension a strong point for the treaty's supporters. How good can a treaty be if, after months of national debate, its merits cannot be comprehensibly explained? Would any of us in our normal lives sign up to a document we did not understand?

Third, it is apparent that a vast number of people in Ireland, as in many other European countries, do not want the extension of EU power and the weakening of individual countries' voices in Europe, like that of Ireland.

Lisbon would mean exactly that, whether it is the bigger role for the EU in defence, including a mutual defence commitment, its new powers over foreign policy or Ireland's smaller voting share and loss of a guaranteed EU commissioner. On that point it is worth noting that the current treaties require unanimous agreement for any new arrangement on the number of EU commissioners. So talk of Ireland automatically losing a commissioner unless Lisbon goes through is wildly misplaced.

It is equally true that the majority of Irish voters are not alone in rejecting a more federal future for Europe. In Lisbon's earlier guise as the EU constitution it was rejected by the French and the Dutch. Polls showed that voters in up to 16 EU member states would have rejected Lisbon had they been given the chance to vote.

This leaves us with the question: what next?

Of course, the straight and simple answer is that No means just that. The EU is a union of democratic sovereign nation states and if the electorate of one EU country rejects a treaty then that should be that. It is a matter for the Irish Government whether the Irish people are asked to vote again, and it is a matter for the Irish people what their response to such a move should be. No outsider has any right to tell the Irish how to handle the matter. That being the case, there must be no question of any punishment of Ireland.

Moreover, the rejection of Lisbon does not actually present any real problem for the EU. Contrary to all the froth about an enlarged Europe's desperate need for the EU constitution/Lisbon Treaty to work efficiently, the quiet truth is that the EU is in fact working perfectly well under the current treaties.

Meanwhile, it is looking increasingly likely that at the next British general election, now less than two years away, the British people will choose a new government. If Lisbon remains unratified by all EU member states, a Conservative government will put Britain's ratification of the treaty on ice and hold a referendum, recommending a No vote to a document we believe represents an outdated centralising approach to the EU. So the chances are growing that Ireland's voters will not be alone in saying No to Lisbon for long.


William Hague is a former British cabinet minister, who later led the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001. He is currently shadow foreign secretary