Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lisboa Constrictors: the fallout of the Irish EU referendum defeat

For the second time in over a month, Ireland has shown a new and healthy disdain for the Eurocracy that infests the EU in its every manifestation. The defeat of Thursday’s referendum by roughly 53 percent to 47 means Ireland and the rest of the EU will not be ratifying the Lisbon Treaty in its current form. The result is a disaster for Ireland's political leaders and follows on from the Ireland’s “disrespectful” entry which the country voted for in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Both people-power events have brought about criticism that Ireland is treating venerable European institutions with contempt.

This is in many ways strange behaviour, as Ireland is far from being Europhobic. For the most part, Ireland does not mind EU rule and has done very well out of it. Having being in the past influenced by Rome and London in equal parts, Brussels is just another city-conqueror. And a seemingly more benevolent one. With previously poverty stricken Ireland’s standards of living now greater than the EU average, there is little serious desire for an anti-European change. Some have argued that fear of immigration caused the defeat, but it is simply more likely to be distaste for the autocratic rule of bureaucracy.

In fast order, Ireland’s one finger signals in the Eurovision Song Contest and the Lisbon Treaty referendum signals the end to a culture of kowtowing to Eurocrats. The spoof song of Dustin the Turkey and the referendum “no” campaign had a very Irish contrariness in common. And the country has always had that tendency in spades. Writer Colm Tóibín says the referendum was a godsend to “every crank in Ireland” left or right. Tóibín supported the treaty but also admitted it was unreadable and filled with legal terms and references to subsections of other treaties.

Politically, Europe has reacted with dismay to the “no” victory. All 27 European member states have to ratify the Lisbon Treaty by January 2009 for it to come into force. So far it has been approved by 18 members, but Ireland is the only country to put it to a public vote. Under pressure British PM Gordon Brown refused to honour Labour's manifesto pledge to put the document to a public vote and now faces a possible backlash as he scrambles to find a negotiated re-settlement that might exclude Ireland.

The British media has also reacted unfavourably to the Irish result. Writing in Spiked on the weekend, editor Brendan O’Neill argues that the concerted media attack on “ungrateful” Irish voters exposes the anti-democratic elitism at the heart of the EU. He quotes the Financial Times's outrage that despite receiving “£40billion in subsidies from Brussels” Irish voters might have the temerity to say ‘No’ to Lisbon, “probably because ‘they do not understand the Treaty’”. Other articles showed their exasperation that the entire fate of the Treaty for 490 million people depended on these pesky three million on the periphery of the action.

Perhaps these writers secretly wished they had a chance to vote down the treaty too. Guido Fawkes skewered the argument that the Irish experience was somehow undemocratic. He points out that as the only country in Europe to actually hold an election involving all of its voters, it was by far the most representative of the lot. Fawkes points out that the total number of parliamentarians in the EU’s other 37 assembly houses (11 bicameral and 15 unicameral) is 9,225. While three million were entitled to vote in Ireland, the fate of the other 490 million was placed in the hands of less than ten thousand people.

However, as Pete Baker points out in Slugger O’Toole, the motley coalition in the "no" camp should beware thinking the result is evidence of actual support for any of their differing agendas. Strict impartiality rules meant that both sides got equal airplay on RTE, the national broadcaster, and that allowed unrepresented groups plenty of time to spread an "extensive menu of anxieties". The result also shows the power of television as the print media was almost one hundred percent behind the “yes” vote.

Yet the politicians only have themselves to blame for failure. They never sat down with the voters and explained what was in it for them. The ruling Fianna Fail party was pre-occupied with the fallout of replacing its longterm leader and realised the danger of defeat too late. One civil servant, Martin Cunningham, told the Irish Independent his mind was made up once he heard Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s admission that even he was not fully briefed on the Treaty document. "Sure he said he didn't even read the thing himself,” said Cunningham. “I decided on my 'No' there and then.”

Last week the “no” side received another significant boost a day ahead of the poll. Dustin the Turkey, whose parody effort “Irelande Douze Points” sunk without trace in the Eurovision Song Contest semi final, explicitly failed to endorse the “yes campaign”. The Turkey apparently told the Irish Sun it preferred a third choice that just said: What? "That way they'd have to go back to the table,” he gobbled, “work out a proper way of explaining the thing, and people would know what it is that's on offer. Even without the “what?” option, it would appear the “no” victory has done exactly that.

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