A Better Plan B

18. June, 2008

Foto: 219Eastern

No matter what next steps are taken, it is clear that the Irish No vote is a repeated lesson to the leaders of national and EU institutions that it is no longer possible to take decisions for people without explaining them to people and then being surprised when people ‘do not get it right’.

The Irish No vote to the Lisbon treaty is causing headaches for many in Europe because the new basic treaty of the European Union has been in the making for more than six years and it has already been ratified by national parliaments in 18 member states. However, it is now rather clear that the new treaty is unlikely to enter into force according to the planned schedule, i.e. before the European Parliament elections in June 2009. It is also clear that the ratification of Lisbon treaty cannot continue without taking into account the outcome of Irish referendum. But putting the whole treaty on ice or declaring it dead is not entirely possible either because treaty changes are necessary to create more efficiency and transparency in EU institutions, enable the upcoming EU accession of Croatia, and give a legal basis for the urgently needed EU decisions on energy and climate change. There are two ways to proceed to take this direction without establishing a core Europe, forgetting about the necessary reforms altogether, or disregarding a binding vote of the people and isolating Ireland.

Modifications for Ireland

One way forward is to organize another vote in Ireland after some time, but only on the condition that the content of the treaty is modified to address the worries of Irish voters on issues like neutrality, abortion and tax policy. A simple “guess again” tactic putting the same Lisbon treaty for a second referendum in Ireland will not do for several reasons. To start with, after the French and Dutch No votes on the Constitutional treaty in 2005 the treaty was amended, at least symbolically giving the French and the Dutch voters the feeling that their voice has been heard.[1] A second referendum in Ireland without treaty modifications is not possible also because of the large margin of No voters in the 12 June referendum, with 53.4% voting against and 46.6% voting in favour of Lisbon treaty ratification. The relatively high voter turnout (53%) also erases the assumption that Yes voters stayed home and could be more active second time around.[2]

The possibility to give opt-outs or modify the treaty to address the Irish worries was already discussed in the 16 June meeting of EU’s foreign ministers.[3] But this option may create difficulties at least on two fronts. Firstly, it opens the way for other EU countries – those that have already ratified the Lisbon treaty, but even more so for those that have not ratified it – to request more treaty changes. This could be exercised, for example, by the Czech Republic and Germany where it is possible that the Constitutional courts take up cases to assess whether the Lisbon treaty is in line with their laws. But it could also come from Sweden where trade unions request their parliament to check the provisions for workers’ rights in Lisbon treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The religious activists in Poland, who don’t support abortion and would want to see Christian values mentioned in the treaty, could wake up. And this could lead to a flood of more requests from many other states.

Secondly, no opt-outs, protocols or declarations added to the Lisbon treaty will erase another underlining reason for the Irish No vote, namely, the fact that the treaty is not readable and comprehensible to EU citizens. As the Irish vote demonstrated – one can no longer hope that voters trust popular governments to take decisions for them if national leaders are unable to explain them.[4] Therefore, a more successful way forward could be a better plan B.

Implementing ‘must-have’ changes

The other way forward is to put the Lisbon treaty on ice but implement the absolutely necessary changes in separate single-issue treaties, for example, giving a legal basis for EU decisions in energy and climate change policy, setting out the necessary institutional reforms to increase effectiveness and transparency of decision-making and enabling the upcoming EU enlargement, without creating new EU posts.[5]

This option has at least two advantages. Firstly, it would enable a gradual EU development without another round of large, long and tiring (both for politicians and voters) negotiations about another mega project, a new post-Lisbon treaty, that could be rejected for one or the other reason by some member state. Secondly, in referenda on the so-called single-issue treaties the debates would have the chance to actually focus on the issue, unlike in the case of Lisbon treaty where campaign activists could find a handful of debatable questions, mix them together and persuade people to vote No. This would also give a clear message to the EU about people’s expectations and worries. If referenda on the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty had voters worried about the weak social protection (in France), too quick EU enlargement (in France and Netherlands), tax policy, abortion and EU army (Ireland), then referenda on a treaty about energy and climate change policy or a treaty about effective institutions will result in voters’ support or rejection of EU’s development in these particular areas.

Explain, explain, and explain

No matter what next steps are taken, it is clear that the Irish No vote is a repeated lesson to the leaders of national and EU institutions that it is no longer possible to take decisions for people without explaining them to people and then being surprised when people ‘do not get it right’. It should also be a lesson that it is no longer possible to listen to EU citizens only when it is a harmful non-binding vote.[6]

National politicians need to come clean and admit to their voters that their every day lives are, directly or indirectly, influenced not by national, but increasingly by EU decisions that are taken and implemented by using citizens’ – tax payers’ money. On one hand, this implies admitting to the relatively limited role of national leaders because the influence of EU decisions in the workings of member states is increasing. On the other hand, this also implies the relatively large role of national leaders because all national leaders of EU member states take EU decisions together. This could lead to national leaders – not only representatives of EU institutions – explaining EU decisions and standing up for the common EU interests, instead of blaming Brussels for all problems and taking national credit for EU achievements. But that, of course, would lead to more and more requests for accountability from EU citizens, something that national politicians would not want to see.


[1] Responding to French No vote largely based on worries about a too weak social protection in Europe, the French government asked to delete the phrase of undistorted competition from treaty text (Lisbon treaty Article 3, and Protocol Nr.27 on internal market and competition). Netherlands, on the other hand, insisted on including a reference to accession criteria and promotion of European values as a criterion for further EU enlargement (Lisbon treaty Article 49).

[2] This was the argument that was used after the No vote on Nice treaty in 2001. Then the voter turnout was 34.8%, with many believing that Yes voters stayed at home because they did not believe a No vote was possible as public opinion polls predicted an overwhelming Yes vote win.

[3] EU Observer, “EU mulls Lisbon treaty sweeteners for Ireland”, 17.jūnijs

[4] Support for the Irish government and Ireland’s EU membership has traditionally been high. But No campaign said that voters should reject the ratification of Lisbon treaty if they don’t understand it. Moreover, they even asked the EU-supporters to vote No alleging that a better treaty is possible.

[5] This could mean the implementation of the double majority voting in the Council, finding a place for Croatia after its’ EU accession (Nice treaty only provides institutional arrangements for the current 27 member states), decreasing the size of the European Commission (not giving one Commissioner per member state), introducing citizens’ initiative (1 million EU citizens having the right to initiate EU legislative proposal), strengthen EU’s capacity in foreign policy (establishing external action service but not establishing a fully pledged EU foreign affairs minister, instead giving more resources to EU’s High representative for the CFSP).

[6] During the period of reflection, via initiatives like Plan D, Debate Europe, etc the European Commission has tried to prove to EU citizens that leaders are listening to their concerns, for example, in projects like the European Citizens’ Consultations where approximately 1800 citizens from all EU countries debated the future of Europe. raksts

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