Ireland’s Rejection of the Lisbon Treaty

Federiga Bindi
Federiga Bindi Former Brookings Expert

June 16, 2008

This opinion was also published by Affari Internazionali in Italian.

On June 13, Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty 53.6% to 45.6%. Only two out of Ireland’s 43 constituencies – Dublin South and Clare – voted in favor of the treaty. Yet, the Irish population accounts for only 1% of the European population and voter turnout was 40% (i.e. significantly below the 50.1% turnout that is required in most countries). In other words, 0.2% of the European population risks preventing the Lisbon treaty from entering into force. That is clearly unsustainable. Eighteen member states have already approved the treaty, and the European Commission’s President José Manuel Durão Barroso stated that the remaining ratifications should continue to run their course. Stopping the process and preventing the treaty from being implemented goes against any principle of democratic representation and, I would add, common sense. Thus, there seems to be only one solution: exit, or rather, secession.

In the history of European integration, there have been only few cases where referendums were employed as a means of ratification. Referenda were used to ratify entrance into the Communities, to ratify new treaties or to decide whether a country should continue as a member or not.

What are the options now? There are basically three possibilities: sack the treaty; change the treaty and start the referendum process over; Ireland secedes.

The first option – sacking the treaty – is not a viable solution as it would be political suicide for the Europeans. The 27 member states are still working on the institutional arrangements of the EEC of Six and this is becoming increasingly unbearable both domestically and internationally. Not that the Lisbon Treaty is a panacea, but it does introduce a number of important changes that would make a considerable difference. For example, domestically, it would simplify the structure of the EU and ease decision-making by further expanding the numbers of issues that can be decided by a qualified majority vote and by ending the distinction between “community” policies and “inter-governmental” ones (notably in home affairs). The treaty also introduces greater transparency as the Council would meet open doors when legislating. Externally, it would help in unifying the EU’s role in the world giving the EU – instead of the EC – a juridical personality and introducing the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the President of the European Council and the European External Action Service.

The second option – change the treaty and start all over – is an equally non-viable option. What changes should be made? And would citizens be aware of the amendments and ultimately change their mind about the treaty? I truly don’t think so, unless of course, we are talking about “opt-outs” as in 1992. But this also cannot be a serious option. There are already a number of policies where only certain member states participate, but stretching the number of exceptions further would risk jeopardizing the effectiveness of the EU. Likewise, a number of hard core countries starting it all over is not a serious alternative.

Thus, the third option remains: secession. Legally, the current treaty does not foresee secession – a possibility that ironically would be introduced by the Lisbon Treaty.

Yet, there is the example of Norway. In 1972, Norway negotiated membership but then failed to ratify the treaty because of a negative referendum vote. Afterward, it negotiated a free-trade agreement with the EEC. In legal terms, however, it would be impossible to have Ireland as a member of the EC and the rest of the countries of the EU. On the other hand, Greenland seceded from the EEC in 1982 following a referendum after it obtained semi-independence from Denmark in 1979. Though under slightly different circumstances, the case of Greenland shows it is a foreseeable possibility that secession occurs even without specific provisions in the treaty.

Being a member of the EU implies ceding a share of sovereignty and there is simply no way around this. At the same time, being a member is not obligatory. A country can be an associate member and happily co-exist with the EU. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco, the Vatican City and San Marino are all examples. Should Irish citizens – or the British, who will likely be next – feel that they are better off outside the EU, then let it be. But it is unthinkable and irresponsible to suggest that 0.2% of the EU population could prevent the rest from achieving this long-awaited reform.

The EU was a light and an anchor for the re-born democracies of Southern Europe in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, as well as to the eastern ones in the 1990s. Others in the Balkans are hoping to join soon. Ireland cannot destroy it all – but a an end to the treaty will destroy it all.

Ireland – and other possible Eurosceptic countries – must act responsibly and decide what is next. When confronted with a similar decision, the Brits opted to stay. On the other hand, pro-European countries must act decisively. Europe was a battlefield until 65 years ago. European integration is still the most precious thing the Old Continent has.