Only Ireland Can Vote on EU’s Future


How Europe’s political elite must curse the memory of Raymond Crotty.

It was as a result of a legal case taken by the veteran economist and activist that the Irish Supreme Court decided in 1987 new European treaties require amendment of the country’s constitution and, therefore, approval by the Irish people in referendum. That’s what leaves the Lisbon Treaty, like all its predecessors for the last two decades, hanging on the mere whim of the Irish electorate. No other state requires a popular vote every time the EU changes its institutional arrangements.

Mostly through the years we have behaved like “good Europeans”–who knew on which side our bread was buttered, cattle subsidised, roads widened etc–and voted Yes. In the midst of the Celtic Tiger boom, however, we rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001, though it got the nod in a 2002 re-run after some nice words were added in a “declaration” addressing Ireland’s tradition of military neutrality.

Now it’s the turn of a treaty allegedly negotiated in Lisbon last year. But actually by common consent this treaty is just a minimal revision of the EU Constitution that was scrapped after French and Dutch voters–Ireland never got its chance–rejected it in referenda in 2005. (A constitution, it seems, would require a popular mandate in places beyond these shores; mere treaties don’t, and Lisbon’s has of late been sailing through parliamentary ratifications across Europe.)

The Irish referendum is set for June 12th, and the polls suggest it could be close. In light of the EU’s semantic bob-and-weaving, it would seem the least we can do as “good Europeans” is to stand beside our French and Dutch brethren and reject what they no longer have the power to reject. After all, Paris and Amsterdam have long since replaced the local chapel as favoured weekend destinations for Ireland’s low-fare-flying bourgeoisie. If voting No is good enough for such smart and stylish continentals, surely it is good enough for us?

That’s not how most politicians here see it, of course.  Not only do they want to be spared the embarrassment of another rejection, but by and large they are ideologically committed to the vision of an expanded, more “efficient” Europe represented by the Treaty, with closer cooperation on foreign policy and military matters, and a firm commitment to privatisation of public services and other neoliberal measures within and beyond European shores.

In fact, the close fit between the ideologies of Dublin and EU elites makes something of a mockery of some of the current left-wing No arguments, those that focus on the ceding of sovereignty to Brussels. Left to its own devices, any conceivable Irish government for the foreseeable future would be at least as reactionary as any EU directive might dictate. Indeed, right-wing No campaigners are marginally more plausible when they worry that further EU integration could ultimately threaten Ireland’s exceptionally corporate-friendly tax regime.

However, we should also of course think optimistically of the unforeseeable future, when Ireland and the EU in general might produce politicians and governments who might not wish to be tied down to the emphasis on competition and trade liberalisation that is spelled out in the Lisbon Treaty.  Lisbon in effect codifies some of the worst aspects of today’s neoliberal orthodoxy, even as events in the real world discredit it.

Oddly enough, the most visible wing of the No campaign thus far has consisted of a couple of leading Irish capitalists, advancing right-wing arguments against the Treaty that are rather different from the “Europe will force abortion in Ireland” line of a few conservative fruitcakes in previous referenda. A previously non-existent organisation, Libertas, set up by one millionaire with strong US military ties, Declan Ganley, and supported by another, Ulick McEvaddy, has plastered the country with billboards opposing the Treaty, and has employed one of Ireland’s most politically connected PR agencies to ensure Libertas is the first name on every lazy journalist’s lips when it comes to reporting the No side.

These Libertas guys are Euro-sceptics in the British Tory mold, not exactly Ireland’s usual cup of tea, and their connections to US intelligence circles have raised eyebrows among the few people who pay attention to such things. Their ambition, it seems, is to win this referendum as a first step toward a pan-European network of right-wing ‘libertarians’ who oppose the alleged regulatory monstrosity that is the EU. Coincidentally, McAvaddy has had one or two business scrapes with said monster.

Their ideas have some popular traction because the EU is indeed a bit of a beast. The term “democratic deficit” has floated around for the last few years as a nice way of saying that Europe is ruled by unelected commissioners who govern by fiat, their directives having the status of law in all the member states. With the EU expanding to 27 countries, under Lisbon each state will not even have one of its own as a commissioner for five out of every 15 years. (In Ireland’s case this will be a blessing, since historically governments here have sent to Brussels a few ex-politicians who are too nakedly neoliberal for even our domestic political scene, the current “internal market and services” commissioner Charlie McCreevy being a case in point.)

The Lisbon Treaty does strengthen somewhat the oversight role of the European Parliament, which would, incredibly, still lack any power to introduce legislation. A few decent liberal Europhiles are encouraged by the development of the parliament as an institution, saying that it is where alternative ideas about the development of Europe can be thrashed out, and the “democratic deficit” represented by the Commission, the Council of Ministers and, under Lisbon, the new unelected president and foreign minister, can be addressed. This brave and hopeful scenario ignores two salient facts: one, the parliament’s powers remain distinctly limp; and two, it has been long since thoroughly discredited across Europe as a costly talking shop where lesser politicians go to avail of a more-than-liberal expenses regime. (Lesser journalists too: the parliament has quietly paid to fly reporters to its sessions in order to garner the coverage that would persuade the public that something relevant might actually be happening there.)
In short, the vision of the European Union that prevails at both ends of the political spectrum, that of a self-perpetuating elite that has managed to consolidate its authority without too much regard for the niceties of mere democracy, contains rather more than a grain of truth.
The “Charter of Fundamental Rights” thrown in with the Treaty is mere window-dressing, given the increasingly pro-business basis of EU legal decisions in recent years.

Another idea was commonplace five or six years ago, when “old Europe” stood vaguely up to the Bush administration prior to the invasion of Iraq: that the EU might act as an important and even progressive counterweight to the US in global affairs. This notion lost currency as the impotence of that opposition was revealed in the fullness of time, and when the EU played a destructive role in Palestine by cutting off aid as punishment for the election of Hamas.

Moreover, in 2008 global hopes, perhaps equally naive, are pinned not on the EU but on the prospect of President Obama. If November instead yields President McCain, the argument about counterweights will return, and the debate about whether EU military cooperation has an independent streak or is structurally subordinate to NATO and the US will regain some salience.

But the limits of that debate should be clear already, and Ireland itself provides ample evidence. Despite increasingly hollow Irish claims of military neutrality, Ireland’s airports, especially Shannon, have facilitated US military flights and troop transports, as well as CIA rendition flights. This cooperation with US imperialism was not directed by Europe–indeed the European Parliament’s most notable achievement in recent years has been critical, albeit impotent, scrutiny of US renditions through EU countries, to the great annoyance of the Irish Government. And now Irish troops are serving in Chad, in a mission coordinated by the EU and rubberstamped by the UN (the latter a requirement for Irish involvement), a mission that rather clearly serves the interests of French neo-colonialism in Africa.

Ireland’s present-day activities show clearly that a European state, indeed a proudly postcolonial one that boasts of neutrality, can both assist US imperialism and bolster indigenous European imperialism in third-world countries, even without the increased military spending, enhanced military cooperation, and expanded list of “tasks” for which EU troops might act outside Europe that are all spelled out in the Lisbon Treaty.

This article is not a despairing argument for voting Yes. However, the No campaigners from various perspectives who paint a picture of Irish authorities being coerced by an all-powerful EU into military and economic policies that they might otherwise resist seem rather fanciful to me.  Yes, ratification of Lisbon would help elites here to shruggingly act on all their own worst instincts, but that’s only the beginning of an argument for a No vote.

The right reasons for voting No–a Sartre-esque, existential No–go far deeper than nationalist appeals to sovereignty. Voting No (however it might please theoretically a few spooks in Washington) is an act of global solidarity: with those whose votes have been ignored elsewhere in Europe; with those working for and availing of public services that are at risk of privatisation; with those in the developing world who have been at the sharp end of vicious EU trade and military policies already, and those who might be in the future; with those who know in their hearts that another arrogant, unaccountable, neoliberal superpower is the last thing our fragile global community needs right now.

See and for more substantial left-wing, anti-imperialist arguments against Lisbon. and for the strange story of Libertas.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology. His book, ‘Hammered by the Irish: How the Pitstop Ploughshares disabled a US war-plane – with Ireland’s blessing’, is forthcoming from Counterpunch Books. He can be reached at:

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)., Twitter @harrybrowne