The more the Irish people know about the Lisbon Treaty, the less they like it. That’s the message of the opinion polls as we draw close to Ireland’s June 12th referendum, which is decisive for the future of European Union institutions.
It’s going to be close. The media panic about the possibility of a No vote on Thursday hasn’t dwelled on such details as polling-margin-of-error and the huge body of undecided voters. But there’s no doubt that the momentum toward the No side has been real, and Ireland could well force the EU governments back to the old drawing board–for a second time, after the rejections of the similar EU Constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005.
The main problem faced by a virtually complete assortment of the Irish and EU powers-that-be is that there is no obvious positive reason to vote Yes. “To Make EU Institutions Function More Efficiently” is not a slogan to stir the blood, especially when folks suspect those institutions are up to no good to begin with.
What’s more, the ‘reforms’ envisioned by Lisbon–e.g. more majority voting instead of unanimity, fewer commissioners–were allegedly required after the expansion of the European Union to 25 countries in 2004 (it’s now 27). But no one has noticed Brussels and Strasbourg seizing up with legislative gridlock under the current arrangements–and again, most people think they wouldn’t much mind if they did.
The underlying issues, and the reason that Ireland alone is holding a referendum on this treaty, have been dealt with previously in CounterPunch. What is notable as the voting approaches– it has actually started already on a few offshore islands–is that the Yes side has moved its argument forward from “come on, we like Europe” to “we’ll make a terrible mess if we vote No and this is no time to be getting Europe annoyed”. Ireland’s always fragile self-esteem has already taken a blow over the last year or two as the Celtic Tiger limps off the scene; and new Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen seems to be shouting breathlessly every time he comes on TV, all about the trouble we’ll be in if No emerges victorious.
That shouting could yet work: if I were a betting man I’d stick a few euro on a narrow Yes victory. The main farmers’ lobby has joined the Yes side, after strong-arming the government into a commitment to veto any WTO agreement that isn’t favorable. Moreoever, the prime opinion-forming media outlets are amplifying the elite’s panic. (A couple of British-owned papers backing the No side have kept the press wars interesting, if not honest or well balanced.) Ad hominem attacks on the No side have been stepped up.
But the No side, which ranges right across the political spectrum, has kept throwing up objections to the Treaty and stayed on the offensive. Some of the objections are dubious–abortion will not be brought into Ireland thanks to Lisbon, however much this prospect seems to have engaged and enraged some conservative voters. And the fuss about keeping ‘our’ commissioner at the EU table and ensuring Ireland can continue to have the EU’s lowest corporation tax is neither very progressive nor based on a sound reading of how most Irish people’s interests have been served historically.
Sinn Fein, which had a terrible election last year, has virtually led the No campaign and deftly plucked arguments from left and right alike. But it would be fair to say that it has kept its emphasis to the left, and the party has helped to boost the left’s No voices, raising objections relating to workers’ rights, the possible privatization of public services and the militarization of the EU. It has made for an interesting month of debate: it’s rare, for instance, to hear so many, and contending, trade-union voices in the media.
And the popular energy is on the No side. While establishment politicians use the referendum campaign, and the accompanying relaxation of the litter laws, to stick up photos of themselves on lampposts across the State, sometimes beside the tiniest of “Yes” pleas, a motley assortment of No campaigners has plastered the island with slogans.
That energy, and a decision by the electorate that the burden of proof should be on those who wish us to change existing political arrangements and power structures, could yet yield a No victory when votes are counted on Friday. Whoever wins, the arguments about who wields power in Europe and to what purpose have only just begun.
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: email@example.com