Sixteen months ago, the Irish electorate gave the European elite a big black eye by voting No to the Lisbon Treaty. But the bruising hadn’t even begun to fade when Brussels and Dublin began planning a re-run of the referendum, in the only EU country required by its constitution to hold a public vote in order to ratify the Treaty. (The Treaty itself is a mish-mash of bureaucratic “efficiencies” cobbled together from the remnants of the EU Constitution, a document abandoned when the people of France and the Netherlands voted against it in 2005.)
Their plot, it seems, worked to perfection. Last Friday there was a swing toward Yes of more than 20 per cent, giving a two-to-one majority, on an even higher turnout than June 2008. So what happened?
The economy: Things were already looking rough in June 2008, but few could have guessed then how far and fast we’d fall in Ireland. With a steeper economic contraction than virtually any other Western country, unemployment skyrocketing, a property bubble that’s still hissing, one bank nationalized and the rest anticipating the world’s biggest bail-out, there has been a widespread feeling that “we need all the friends we can get.” A vague and not-inaccurate sense that the European Central Bank has been practically supportive of the government’s bank-rescue strategies, combined with eyes averted from the ways European policy have helped create and exacerbate the mess, helped drive the Yes vote. Working-class and poor voters were again more likely to vote No, but not in the same numbers and proportions as in 2008. Overall, the message to Europe was “Yes. Please.” The ‘guarantees’: The Irish government needed some apparent concessions from Brussels before it could ask the people to vote again. So it cherry-picked a few issues from the No side and negotiated a few so-called ‘guarantees’, though the Treaty itself couldn’t actually be re-opened given that 26 other national-ratification processes were either complete or in train. One clear change was a commitment not to reduce the number of EU commissioners below the current number of member-states, so that Ireland would continue to have a seat at that powerful table. (Theoretically these commissioners are not representatives of their own states and work only for the EU, but of course politics doesn’t work theoretically.) Other guarantees on Ireland’s military neutrality (a vague promise that appears to contradict the Treaty text), taxation and abortion helped to muddy the waters. Late revelations in the investigative magazine Phoenix that the government had failed abjectly in most of what it sought in these talks were ignored by the rest of the media.
Big business: A few corporate giants decided that despite the current hard times they could and should curry favor with the government and their occasional regulators in Brussels by throwing their weight and money behind the Yes campaign. So microchip-maker Intel plastered the country with an ad campaign, and budget-airline Ryanair chipped in with newspaper advertising and the notorious big mouth of its chief executive Michael O’Leary. These campaigns were effective not only in themselves but because the still-prevailing ideology here sees such (anti-union) ‘wealth-creators’ as crucial to Ireland’s chances of economic recovery. Meanwhile, the media was uniformly pro-Yes: the more Euro-skeptical approach of some British-owned papers last year was not repeated.
The Catholic Right: In Euro-referenda in Ireland over the last two decades or so, the No side has traditionally presented the spectacle of particularly strange bedfellows from Left and Right. In the first Lisbon referendum in 2008, the Right was most conspicuously represented by the sleek, well-funded neoliberals of Libertas, an organisation that made a deliberate choice from its public debut in 2007 not to emphasize traditional Catholic values. This time Libertas – bruised by its pan-European failures in the European-parliament elections earlier this year – didn’t campaign until a very late u-turn brought it back into the race. Meanwhile, the anti-abortion Right, funded heavily from the US, had the earliest and most controversial postering campaign. The result: the referendum became a chance to reject these social conservatives – a chance many voters were happy to seize. The Catholic Right in Ireland hasn’t won a referendum since it defeated divorce in 1986. (Divorce swept in easily a decade later.)
The distracted Left: Lisbon 1 in 2008 saw a fairly coherent Left campaign against the Treaty. In late 2009, however, there are too many other issues competing for activists’ attention. And, if we’re honest, the crisis has not presented quite the rich ideological and organizing opportunities that we might have hoped for; still, the coming weeks will see chances to challenge the government on public-service cutbacks and the planned National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), a shockingly-priced €54 billion repository for development-property loans, a proposal that could very well bankrupt the country in perpetuity. With the Green Party acting as part of the government coalition, but preparing to make some demands on its larger partner, Fianna Fail, in order to stay in power, many leftists are seeking the pressure points that could bring the government down. For months there has been a sense that Lisbon would not be such a pressure point.
The Left’s sense that the Lisbon Treaty might ultimately be irrelevant is quite possibly accurate in a larger sense. Although it theoretically makes the EU worse, by underlining its unified military development and its neoliberal principles – and the prospect of Tony Blair as ‘EU president’ thanks to Lisbon is truly puke-inducing – the Treaty is in many ways a relic of the years before the crisis. Nowadays, in the new era of every country for itself, it’s not at all clear that European elites across the expanded union will be able to work together effectively. Ratifying Lisbon could well turn out to have been the least of their worries.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org