By Conor O’Clery
Irish voters, making up a fraction of one per cent of the population of the European Union, have rejected a crucial EU reform treaty by a narrow margin, leaving itself isolated in Europe and the European Union in crisis.
The result stopped in its tracks an accord hammered out in Lisbon, Portugal, to enable European institutions to cope with a rapid EU growth to 27 countries with a population of 495 million people.
The outcome, announced yesterday afternoon, of the referendum held Thursday dismayed and angered governments across Europe, which saw their tortuous negotiations to make EU institutions more efficient thrown into disarray.
The Lisbon Treaty had to be ratified by every country before coming into effect and EU leaders must now find some other way for European integration to go ahead. Twenty-six countries left ratification to their national governments and only Ireland, with 3.05 million voters, staged a referendum, as required under its constitution.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will now face furious domestic pressure to hold a once-promised referendum rather than continue to ratify the treaty through parliament. Ireland can only hope that Britain will also reject the treaty: a small country saying no is a problem for the small country, but a big country saying no is a problem for Brussels.
The vote is a slap in the face for the French Government whose foreign minister Bernard Kouchner warned Ireland on Monday that it would be very troubling “that we would not be able to count on the Irish who counted a lot on Europe's money.” Such comments, implying that an ungrateful Ireland would be cast adrift, sounded like bullying to many Irish voters.
What has left veteran European observers scratching their heads in genuine bewilderment is that Ireland of all countries should rebuff the EU, as membership of the European club has allowed Ireland to prosper mightily and to escape from the shadow of Britain, its former ruler.
The result confounded and infuriated the Irish political establishment, which had thrown all its energies into securing a “Yes” vote. The government, the major opposition parties and the biggest labor and farming unions all campaigned for ratification.
It also confounded Ireland’s leading gambling company, Paddy Power PLC, which was so convinced of the outcome it prematurely paid out winnings to people who bet on a ‘Yes’ vote, leaving the company left with “egg on our faces” as a spokeswoman put it.
Irish prime minister Brian Cowen put his personal prestige on delivering a “Yes” vote and is also left with egg on his face. Seemingly unaware how compromised the Irish political class has been by corruption allegations and failures to cope with internal problems such as a dysfunctional health service, he and other government ministers erected posters on every Irish lamp post with their portraits, urging a “Yes” vote.
Opponents of the treaty in Europe cheered on the Irish ‘No” campaign, and British newspapers circulating in Ireland, like the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, campaigned against ratification, leading to accusations from the “Yes” campaign that Britain's Eurosceptics were waging a proxy war in Ireland.
For the anti-EU Europeans, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, never has so much been done, by so few, for so many, as the Irish have scuppered a treaty which would likely have been rejected by the electorates of several other member countries.
One reason for the “No” vote was that the 287-page document was so full of bureaucratic language that people did not know what they were voting for. The treaty proved impenetrable even to legal experts: the chairman of the independent Irish Referendum Commission, Iarfhlaith O Neill, was embarrassingly unable to answer a technical point at a press conference last week.
In an ill-tempered national debate, both sides threw around accusation of lies and distortions.
A free-market organisation called Libertas formed by Irish businessman Declan Ganley argued that the country’s low corporate tax rate, crucial for international investment, would be jeopardized by the treaty.
The pro-life lobby expressed fears that a loss of sovereignty could mean the end of Ireland’s strict anti-abortion law.
The minor opposition party, Sinn Fein, stirred up concerns that Ireland would lose its cherished neutrality and become part of a militarized Europe. Some voters said they thought they were voting against conscription.
Opponents also argued that Ireland’s influence in Europe would be weakened through the loss its commissioner on the European Commission, the de facto European cabinet, for five out of every 15 years.
The government rejected all these claims, and pointed out that every EU member country would lose their commissioner for similar periods. But as Irish radio presenter Pat Kenny put it, the “No” campaign had all the best tunes.
Anticipating the outcome, the Irish Times thundered its disapproval on Saturday in an editorial headed “Are we out of our minds?” Seeking an explanation for a likely defeat it reflected on “a strange public mood out there that is anti-establishment, anti-authority and anti-politician.”
Ireland’s foreign minister Micheál Martin admitted the result showed a disconnect between EU institutions and its people. Martin, who has to face his fellow EU foreign ministers on Monday to explain what happened, admitted “There was a general sense we were giving away too much power.”
Ireland may try again as it did with a previous EU treaty when it held two referenda in 2001 and 2002 to get a “Yes” vote, but such a move would only confirm the argument that European democracy means everyone agreeing to what the bureaucrats decide.
Conor O'Clery is former chief foreign correspondent of The Irish Times, Ireland's leading national newspaper.
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