Volume 15 (2009) / Issue 2
The defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in the Irish referendum on 12 June 2008 has sent shock waves throughout the European Union (EU). It is still premature to attempt to evaluate the full consequences of this referendum defeat. Whatever the legal and political merits of the Treaty itself, it is clear that Ireland’s standing within the EU has been diminished. Nor, as a matter of political reality, is Ireland in the position of either France or the Netherlands following the defeat of the European Constitution in those jurisdictions in the summer of 2005. For a start, the Lisbon Treaty was a further compromise – even if it did contain much of what had hitherto been in the ill-fated European Constitution – and the appetite for a wearisome further round of institutional reflection on the part of the Member States had diminished further. Just as critically, even if many voters in Ireland were in denial on this point, there is a difference in terms of realpolitik between a negative decision on the part of two key founder Member States on the one hand and a rejection in a small, peripheral country such as Ireland on the other. Again, irrespective of what one thinks of the merits of the Lisbon Treaty, in practical terms, it is hard to see how one small Member State can refuse to ratify a Treaty deemed essential by the other twenty-six Member States, at least without jeopardizing huge reserves of goodwill.
Ireland has, of course, been in this situation before following the first (negative) referendum vote on the Nice Treaty in June 2001. That defeat was highly embarrassing for both the Government and the country. We were the only country to hold a referendum on an innocuous treaty designed to facilitate the accession of new entrants, most of whom had suffered the yoke of communism and Soviet domination. The referendum did not engage the public; the quality of debate was poor and the turnout – 34% – unimpressive. A combination of domestic and EU pressures saw a successful second referendum in the Autumn of 2002. On that occasion, the Government campaign was much better, as was the quality of the political debate. The second referendum passed comfortably with a significantly higher turnout.
So far as the Lisbon referendum was concerned, many were of the view that that turnout would prove to be the key. On this occasion, the turnout at 54% was sufficiently high so as to remove the question of turnout as a factor in the defeat of the referendum. And yet despite an active – if at times uninspiring – campaign on the part of the Government and the main opposition parties, the referendum was defeated by 53% to 47%.
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