In the midst of a growing economic crisis, Ireland’s urban working class and struggling rural people have united to deliver a blow to Europe’s ruling elite.
The defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in yesterday’s Irish referendum has tossed out years of efforts by the European Union to come up with new, “streamlined” procedures, and to get the increasingly unitary EU an (unelected) president and foreign minister.
The Treaty was itself a modest rewrite of the European Constitution, rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.
As the counts came in from around the country today, the Irish people’s decision was, in the end, not even close. The momentum for a No vote displayed in last week’s opinion polls continued right through polling day. With a turnout bigger than in any previous Irish Euro-referendum, the electorate smashed expectations that a big vote would boost the Yes side and defied the advice of 95% of the country’s elected politicians, who supported the Treaty.
The politically disparate No campaign had rained blows from left and right, defending workers’ rights and defending low corporation tax, against privatization and against abortion; the Yes side could scarcely defend itself, let alone fight back.
Former Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte today compared the plight of the Yes campaigner to playing a video game: “You pop the bad guy, two more pop up.”
The various No elements avoided arguing among themselves during the campaign, but the battle to claim the victory has now begun. All analysts agree, however, that as in the 2001 Nice Treaty referendum, Irish people’s concern about military neutrality and the growing militarization of the EU was crucial.
Many of the issues and energies in the Lisbon campaign have been addressed already in CounterPunch. The X factor in this result was the effect of the prevailing economic catastrophism: would voters take the conservative option of voting Yes to avoid the danger of deepening the crisis with political uncertainty? In the end it was the most at-risk sections of the population who delivered the most decisive No.
The problem for the Treaty was that it was all too easy for voters to connect Ireland’s present economic woes to its role in Europe. As unemployment leaps, it calls attention to all the east-European immigrants working here; as previously astronomic house prices collapse, the president of the European Central Bank announces a coming rise in interest rates; as farmers worry about their futures, the EU negotiates at the WTO to allow more South American beef into European markets; as fishermen despairing of high fuel prices stage protest blockades at key ports, they complain about EU-imposed fishing quotas that force them to dump tons of their catches.
A No vote does nothing to address any of these issues; indeed few of them even figured prominently in the campaign. But voting No was the means at hand to complain about them.
Much of the media credit for the No win is being given to conservative businessman Declan Ganley and his new Libertas organization, with its respectably neoliberal campaign focusing on taxation and voting weights in EU institutions. But the results so far indicate that better-off Irish voters, from the fat farming regions of the south midlands and the prosperous suburbs of south Dublin, stuck with their traditional Europhilia. The Yes side won solid victories in well-off areas and a near-draw in prosperous rural regions. The No victory came with unprecedented turnouts in poorer areas of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and other cities, and with large No margins in more marginal rural areas in the west of the island and around the Border with Northern Ireland. Fishing communities delivered an overwhelming No. Former prime minister Garret FitzGerald has described the result as the most class-divided in Irish history.
There is, without doubt, some space for the Left in Ireland and across Europe to exploit this huge victory in a tiny country against the European Union’s neoliberal elite, especially if EU leaders try to drive through yet another version of Lisbon. But the reasons that an uneasy Ireland voted No are not simple, and the complex and contradictory story here gives that elite the chance to shrug off the result and just live with the institutional status quo ante.
Is Europe a regulatory threat to business? A military threat to peace? A liberal threat to traditional morality? A driver of climate-change enlightenment? A hungry vulture in third-world markets? A counterweight to US power? Take your pick: unlike the US, the definition of institutional Europe is up for grabs, internally and globally.
I was speaking last night to a prominent left-wing politician and No campaigner. He spoke of hearing a No voter give her reasons: “If the Lisbon Treaty goes through, Europe will bring in abortion, gay marriage, legal prostitution, euthanasia…” The campaigner was glad to have another No vote, but conceded: “If I believed that myself, I would have voted Yes.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org