The Treaty of Lisbon is today's consensus. It is not perfect but those Irish who wish Europe well should vote Yes.


This article was originally published in the Financial Times on 12 May 2008

Camel-like, the Treaty of Lisbon has now come to the eye of the needle. The small door through which it must pass is the referendum in Ireland on June 12. Only Ireland has decided to ratify the European Union treaty by popular vote: elsewhere, shocked by the impact of the negative referendums in France and the Netherlands three years ago politicians have returned to the relatively safe haven of their national parliaments.

Quite why Ireland still sticks to referendums is far from clear. A much cited case in 1987 brought by eurosceptic Raymond Crotty against the Single European Act, is not the answer.

In that judgment the Irish Supreme Court found that transfers of sovereignty from Ireland to the European Union only had to be sanctioned by referendum if their transfer had the effect of altering "the essential scope or objectives" of the EU. At that stage, the introduction of a common foreign policy was deemed to necessitate a referendum.

The Treaty of Lisbon, however, makes no such innovation, but seeks merely to build upon the Union's existing powers. At no stage in the protracted constitutional negotiations that culminated at Lisbon was it seriously proposed to confer major new competences on the EU. Instead, the new treaty serves to clarify and rationalise the Union's current scope and objectives, notably in the fields of security and defence policy and justice and home affairs. What matters is to strengthen the capacity of the Union to act with efficacy in a more challenging world. This means concentrating on improving legal and political procedures, streamlining instruments and boosting the democratic legitimacy of the institutions. Even the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which in any case builds on the existing corpus of European rights law, is mandatory only within the context of the explicit competences of the EU and the powers of its institutions.

So the choice of a referendum in Ireland is not a constitutional matter but a product of its peculiar political system. Ireland's parliament is elected by an unusual form of proportional representation, the Single Transferable Vote, which pitches MPs and candidates as much against their own party colleagues as against those from opposition parties. Populism is rife, and there is always the risk of pork-barrel politics.

Party political forces are aligned more on the outcome of the Irish civil war in the 1920s than they are on contemporary ideology. And it is these political parties - Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - which, having shuffled off the responsibility for taking the decision on Lisbon from parliament to people, are only now, and tardily, beginning their official campaigns to persuade folk to say Yes.

It is not an easy task. Membership of the EU has brought Ireland out of the shadow of the United Kingdom and has made many Irish rich. Ireland is a small country which has always managed to punch above its weight in EU politics. Nevertheless, European integration is a sensitive issue in a country where nationalist and republican sentiment is still strong. Rural Ireland remains religious and conservative. Many feel the risk of Irish isolation on the western periphery of a Union that enlarges eastwards. Immigration has replaced emigration as the very public face of Europe - and just at the time that, economically, the Celtic tiger has lost her growl.

All these sensibilities have been exploited by the numerous factions of the nay-sayers. It is of little comfort that almost all their diverse and often contradictory arguments are wrong.

Much Irish euroscepticism concerns not the prospective Treaty of Lisbon but the current, unreformed EU. Beef farmers oppose an agreement in the Doha Round that would lower the EU's import tariffs. Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson is criticised for pursuing his own, Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal agenda at the expense of the CAP. In the light of immigration and of recent judgments of the European Court of Justice, trade unionists fear for their wages and jobs.

Others, wilfully or not, misread the Lisbon treaty. Left-wingers claim that Lisbon will impose nuclear energy on Ireland. Business people spread alarm about how the EU, under Lisbon, will force Ireland to raise its corporation tax. Nationalists insist that Ireland's post-colonial ‘neutrality' will be impossible to sustain under Lisbon. And right-wing Christians claim that the Charter will authorise abortion in Ireland. (Where is the Pope when you need him?)

The institutional questions are being wildly distorted in the debate, particularly by people who should know better (see, for example, the article by Mary Lou McDonald MEP in the Irish Times, of April 29.) It is asserted, wholly without evidence, that the treaty's hugely important democratic reforms will leave the citizen worse off than now. Irish eurosceptics have also borrowed the lie of their British counterparts who claim that Lisbon is somehow a ‘self-amending' treaty. What that might be is never explained. The truth is that there can be no future change to the EU treaties, however insignificant, without the unanimous agreement of all member state governments and also their national parliaments.

Battling against so much deception in a four week campaign is going to be difficult. It will be essential for pro-treaty campaigners to nail two monstrous falsehoods. The first is that it is reasonable to support the EU but be against the Lisbon treaty. (Sinn Féin and the British Tories have more in common than meets the eye.) But the fact is that to reject Lisbon means having to continue with the Treaty of Nice - which, paradoxically, eurosceptics universally hate. Without Lisbon the EU will continue to be weak in global affairs and clumsy in the domestic arena; parliamentary democracy will remain half-finished, the rule of law impaired and the system of government opaque. Putting more demands on an unreformed Union, for example in the field of climate and energy policy, or in the efforts to combat poverty and discrimination, will be futile. Without Lisbon, the EU will be unable to deliver better public policy.

The second big falsehood is that if Ireland says No, there will be something better on offer. There won't. The Treaty of Lisbon is the best we can do. It is not perfect, and, like the camel, not pretty. Someday it too will need to be revised. But Lisbon is today's consensus. There is no agreement to do anything else - certainly not to embrace the neo-communist agenda of Sinn Féin. This time, there really is no Plan B. Those Irish who wish Europe well should vote Yes. And Europeans who wish Ireland well should urge them to do so.

Andrew Duff MEP (Liberal/UK) is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. His True Guide to the Treaty of Lisbon can be found on www.andrewduff.eu

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.