Moving ahead on the Lisbon Treaty
The Irish Republic has rejected the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty in the national referendum held on June 12. This important decision with all of its vast implications on the other 26 EU member states has been taken by this single nation with a population of about 4.34 million, making out less than 1 per cent of the total EU population of 490 million.
A meagre 53.1% of Ireland’s eligible voters exercised their right to vote for the Lisbon Treaty. This is considered a low turnout by Irish standards considering that in the last 3 Irish general elections the turnout was 66% in 1997, 63% in 2002 and 67% in 2007. The Treaty was defeated by a margin of 53.4% to 46.6% with a total of 752,451 people voting in favour and 862,415 voting against.
Ireland is the only country to have held a referendum on the treaty. The 19 EU member states that have so far ratified the Lisbon Treaty gained or sought parliamentary approval for such purpose.
This result might have come as a surprise considering that Ireland has benefited more than most countries from membership of the EU. In the 90s the EU funded for as much as 2% of the Irish government’s spending which contributed substantially to the country’s phenomenal 10% economic growth. During the year 1997 alone the EU funds to Ireland totalled €2.5billion and to date these funds have reached €40billion. The EU also took over as country’s chief trading partner between 1995 and 2000, buying 70% of its exports.
Irish voters have rejected an EU treaty once before, in 2001, when they defeated the original Nice Treaty fearing it would end Ireland’s military neutrality. The EU offered assurances to the contrary, helping the “yes” side to victory in a second referendum a year later.
The comments by the EU Commission President that the Irish government had presented ‘enough information’ to the Irish population ahead of the vote have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Many voters did not understand the 287-page Lisbon Treaty document full of bureaucratic language and so did not know what they were voting for. The treaty proved impenetrable even to legal experts. The chairman of the Irish Referendum Commission himself was embarrassingly unable to answer a technical point at a press conference held in Dublin to clarify key issues arising in the treaty campaign just a week before the referendum. At the same time opponents to the treaty instilled fears and concerns stating that the treaty would cede too much power to unelected EU officials putting at risk Ireland’s 12.5 percent business-tax rate.
According to the rules of the EU, as found in the Nice Treaty, the rejection of the Lisbon treaty by any single nation means that it cannot come into effect, as the unanimous ratification of the treaty by all 27 EU member states is required for this purpose. Under present conditions the EU would therefore have to content itself with the existing Nice Treaty which is designed for up to 28 member states thus precluding it from pursuing further its policy of enlargement.
Where Malta is concerned, the effective implementation of the Lisbon Treaty would have given the country an extra sixth seat in the European Parliament. Therefore it has to be seen whether Malta will lose this chance now that the treaty cannot come into effect.
Mention was made at the summit of EU leaders meeting on 19 and 20 June in Brussels of the idea of approving the Lisbon Treaty regardless of the Irish defeat. Such an option of moving ahead on the treaty without Ireland would necessarily involve the introduction of a degree of political isolation for the country. While one recognises that this is a dangerously unprecedented situation, at the same time it is certainly undemocratic and most unfair that a single member state should halt progress for other states.