Apr 2008

The Lisbon Treaty – 6 questions

You all know the drill by now. Some abstract general principle gets illustrated by what is ostensibly a fairly innocuous news item. Predictable? I prefer the word “reliable” myself.

Anyways, in this case it may seem like you’re getting a blog post about European politics, but the point I want to make goes far beyond the Brussels bureacracy. I have to say though, that European politics can be a tricky topic for me. I’m extremely ambivalent about the whole thing and if I’m not careful that can come across as self-contradictory, as opposed to nuanced (anyone else notice the upsurge in things being “nuanced” since the Archbishop episode? No? Only me then). On the one hand, my first instinct — and with very good reason — is always to be suspicious of the undertakings of politicians. On the other hand, I’m very much in favour of “the spirit” of the European project.

And I think, therein lies the central problem. The undertakings of politicians is what happens when we try to structure the spirit as word. It’s an unpleasant spectacle, and it ends up being destructive for society as a whole. That said, I believe we’re smart enough to work out a way of not doing it anymore. And I’m serious about that by the way.

Chances are, though, we won’t get that done by June. That means the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty will almost certainly go ahead. Which, to be honest, I’m having great difficulty understanding. And I’d be more than grateful if any reader could clear up my confusion.

My confusion exists on a whole bunch of levels. So bear with me as I try to disentangle them and lay them before you in a discrete manner, as opposed to the Escher-designed gordian knot made entirely of pan-dimensional moebius strips in which they currently exist.

Firstly, a rather simple query. I’ve been told by two separate people (neither of whom are generally given to conspiracy theory or unreliable flights of fancy) that the European parliament has actually voted to ignore the result of the Irish referendum should it be in the negative. However, I cannot find any verification for this. Does anyone know the full story?

Secondly, if that’s not the case and an Irish “No” vote will sink the treaty, how can that possibly be described as even vaguely democratic (which is surely the whole point of a referendum)? The expanded EC has approximately 460 million citizens. Ireland is the only nation holding a popular vote on the Lisbon Treaty, with all of the other nations planning (as of now) to ratify it through parliament. Ireland has a population of a little over 4 million people, of whom roughly 3 million are eligible to vote. So even if there’s a massive turnout (an unlikely 90%, say) and a large majority of them cast a “No” vote (an unlikely landslide, with 75% against the treaty), it still means that a treaty ratified by every other state (representing 456 million people) will be overturned by the decision of 2 million Irish citizens. And in reality, if the Irish do vote “No”, it’ll be a much closer vote based on a much smaller turnout. It could be as few as 1.2 or 1.3 million people who scupper the treaty.

It’s stretching the definition way beyond breaking point to describe that as “democratic”.

Thirdly, if we Irish vote to reject the treaty, then what happens? The “Yes” campaign paint a dire picture of Europe grinding to a halt. Or else of Ireland becoming marginalised, perhaps even forced out of the European political system (which would be a singularly difficult process for the nation, given our total economic integration with the continent up to and including our adoption of the common currency). The “No” campaign insist that nothing of the sort would occur and that Ireland can sink the treaty with little or no negative consequences. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between, but given the complete inability of the political classes to offer a balanced view, it’s very difficult to know exactly where — in between — the truth lies.

Fourthly, what the hell does the treaty really propose? The “Yes” campaigners insist that it’s all about tidying up current European legislation and that, in fact, it’ll have little or no impact upon individual nations. If that were true, then why on earth is a referendum required? Why can’t this all be done in the European parliament in the same way that national parliaments are capable (in theory) of handling such irrelevant bureaucratic issues internally? The “No” campaigners, on the other hand, insist that this is nothing less than a complete abdication of national sovereignty. Here in Ireland, we will lose our valued neutrality. More than that, we will be transferring huge amounts of power to Brussels and away from our own parliament. But if that were the case, then why do the vast majority of Irish politicians support it? These are not people whose natural tendency is to loosen their grip on the reins of power.

Fifthly, why on earth is it so difficult to unearth objective and balanced information on this issue? I understand that many people must have a vested interest in either a “Yes” or a “No” vote. But are there no honest commentators? Nobody willing to explain — in relatively simple terms — exactly what impact this treaty will have on my life, and their own? I’m not suggesting that the issue isn’t complex, or that it should be “dumbed-down”, but the text of the treaty itself is absurdly opaque and basically unintelligible (and I speak as someone who regularly reads dense academic papers written by over-intellectual neurotics who haven’t interacted with the real world in 40 years). Why, exactly, should I vote “Yes” (or “No”) to Lisbon?

Sixthly, given all of the above — and the fact that most voters won’t even make the limited attempts that I’ve made to better understand this treaty — who on earth believes that a popular vote is a suitable manner of deciding whether or not to adopt Lisbon?

Like much of modern politics, this whole thing has got an air of the surreal about it.

Posted in: Opinion