The Lisbon referendum
And so the referendum campaign is upon us – we shall shortly be voting on whether to ratify the Lisbon treaty. The first sign of trouble ahead is the appearance of posters on every lamp post. First up were the anti-Lisbon group, COIR, and now the pro-Lisbon groups and parties have also got active. And so also the campaign themes are being fine-tuned and aired. And then we have the opinion polls in the newspapers.
The strangely disturbing thing about the Lisbon saga is the fog in which all discussion and debate seems to take place. Last time round, key players declared they had not read the treaty, or didn’t understand it. And others started to make claims about what was in it or connected with it which were colourful but, perhaps, didn’t owe very much to the Lisbon provisions. On the polling day I asked a number of people who had voted to tell me two things that were in the treaty. Several couldn’t name one, and most of the rest named things that were in fact not in the treaty, or associated with it, at all. In fact if I recall only one person gave me a nearly accurate answer.
When I taught law, one of my constant messages to students was to go to the primary texts. Notwithstanding what was said at the time of the last referendum, there is much in the treaty that is quite accessible. So let me try to help by referring to some of them. First, let’s give the treaty its title: it is the ‘Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community.’ You can find the text of the treaty here. And you might usefully go to the following pages: on page 13 you will find a statement of the aims and values of the EU under the treaty; on page 14, and then on pages 18-20, are some of the principles of governance of the EU. And if by then you are in the mood, just keep reading.
Of course if you believe some of the opponents of the treaty, there are evil things waiting to be inflicted upon us once the treaty is ratified, from a dramatic lowering of the minimum wage to unfettered abortion. None of this is in the treaty. Whether the two claims just cited are true would depend, in the first case, on new EU member states bullying and cajoling the rest of us into adopting their pay rates, and in the second on an unreasonable and highly unlikely approach of the European Court of Justice. But from the posters and the campaign theses, we can gather that the strategy of the opponents is to make our flesh creep. In fact, in the past yes campaigners have also been tempted by the scaremongering tactic, with warnings of dire consequences if we were to vote ‘No’; so far the approach there has been more positive.
But for those who want the treaty to be ratified, it is worth pointing out that they have a difficult subject – not because the treaty is unworthy, but because it makes for a dull read and doesn’t provide much material for a passionate campaign. A slogan of ‘Let’s look at the new article 3a’ doesn’t set the pulse racing. And in that setting, opponents can just assert that it means all sorts of horrible and life-threatening things. Brian Lenihan wisely remarked last time, if you’re explaining you’re losing.
As we’re in a democracy, in some ways how you vote is less important than that you vote, and so I would urge everyone to exercise this right. And as for the main parties to the debate, stick to the facts and forget about all the dramatic statements, hair-raising threats and creative interpretations.
And if you can find it in your hearts not to put up any more of these annoying posters, then I for one will be grateful.