Posted tagged ‘referendum’

Lisbon vote – reactions from other countries

October 5, 2009

In the aftermath of the referendum, it may be interesting to see the comments on the outcome from other countries.

Not surprisingly, there were statements strongly welcoming the vote from  continental European countries. If you read German, a summary of the various responses was published by the influential weekly Die Zeit here. A statement from the German government can be seen here. An interesting analysis from a French perspective can be found here in Le Monde, including the view that Tony Blair may (by an indirect route) have as a result of the vote had his bid for the EU Presidency strengthened.

That latter prospect is seen as unlikely by London Mayor Boris Johnson in an article in the Daily Telegraph.The job, he suggests, ‘will go Buggins-style to some relatively inoffensive Luxembourg socialist or superannuated Finnish environment minister.’ Unsurprisingly again, there is plenty of negative comment in Britain, including this piece, again in the Daily Telegraph, that suggests that the Irish were hoodwinked and coerced and that Iceland is in fact doing much better than us.

If you want to see an assessment of it all from across the Atlantic, the New York Times as ever has the best coverage.

Referendumitis

September 28, 2009

As everyone knows, Ireland will be voting in a referendum this Friday on the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community. That will be the only issue to be placed before the Irish people in a referendum this year. And notwithstanding the excitements that such a referendum can entail it’s a relatively rare occurrence in Ireland.

It would be very different if we were living in Switzerland. Since 1848 Swiss citizens (until recently, men only) have been asked to vote on all sorts of propositions. So far this year they have had five referendums, and seven more are planned. So for example this past weekend they voted in favour of raising value added tax in order to deal with an underfunding of disability insurance. In November, controversially, they will be asked to vote on a proposed prohibition of the construction of minarets on mosques. Last year, to pick another example, a majority voted against a proposal to liberalise laws on the possession or use of cannabis. All in all, the Swiss vote on matters of general policy and principles (there have been several on neutrality and military policy), as well as matters that are less exalted (my favourite being the referendum on a proposal to use less concrete in Switzerland, appropriately held on April 1st, 1990). I’ve seen a list of all referendums that have been held in Switzerland since 1848, and to be honest I couldn’t be bothered to count them, but I’d say there were well over 500, and 30 since 2006 alone.

In constitutional terms, Switzerland behaves like a kind of super-large village: 50,000 people, or eight cantons, can force a referendum on any issue. And as we have seen, it happens a lot. Most other countries either do not use referendums at all, or else only for very limited purposes, often to do with constitutional amendments as is the case in Ireland. However, even for constitutional amendments most countries do not have referendums, allowing such amendments to be adopted by parliament, sometimes with special majorities.

The use (or otherwise) of the device of a popular vote to determine specific policy or operational issues is the key characteristic of what is described as ‘direct democracy’, where voters are given the opportunity to choose or to reject the policies that will be applied by government. ‘Indirect’ democracy, on the other hand, is a system in which voters elect a government, or a parliamentary majority from which the government will be chosen, which will then implement policies. It is sometimes argued that the distinction between these has been blurred, as even in an indirect democracy the electorate votes for (or against) the policy package which parties place before the people.

The main arguments against direct democracy in a modern state (as distinct from the ancient Greek city-state from which it emerged) are that countries have to thrive in complex economic, social and political environments in which they must demonstrate rational predictability and an overall sense of purpose, which is undermined if the people can cherry pick things they like and reject things they don’t – for example perhaps voting for high public expenditure and low taxes; and that issues may be brought to a referendum which are simply too technical and incomprehensible to allow an intelligent vote to be taken on them. On the other hand the main argument for direct democracy is that it has the capacity to engage the people and make them take more direct responsibility for national affairs.

It may be argued that direct democracy has worked in Switzerland; though any such conclusion may have to be tempered with reference to various illiberal measures that have over the decades been adopted in votes. But it must also be said that the nature of Swiss society is fundamentally different from that of almost any other country.

Here in Ireland the device of the referendum, which is the only way in which the Constitution can be amended, does not necessarily have a proud history. In the 1980s the device was used in a divisive manner to enforce what might now be regarded by some as sectarian social values. And more recently, we have voted on European treaties that were far too technical for such votes, resulting in referendums that had a more general plebiscite nature unrelated to the specific issues to be determined. Right now the overwhelming majority of posters on Irish streets arguing the case for or against the Lisbon treaty actually have nothing whatsoever to do with the treaty, but rather try to chill the blood of the voters by setting out horrible scenarios that are in fact completely irrelevant.

When the current Lisbon vote is over, it may be time to think again, in the context of Irish constitutional law, whether this use of the referendum is necessarily a good idea. Though of course, if we decide to change it, we’ll need to vote on it.

An Irish EU Commissioner for ever?

September 12, 2009

On the Fianna Fail party website, there is a news item on the Lisbon referendum, which opens as follows:

Ireland’s voice will always be heard at European Commission level if the Lisbon Treaty is passed as Ireland will always have a European Commissioner according to Minister for Foreign Affairs and Director of the Fianna Fáil Referendum Campaign Micheál Martin TD.

The background to this assurance is the belief that a significant number of people voted against the Lisbon Treaty at the first referendum because they were unhappy at the prospect of Ireland not having a European Commissioner at all times as a matter of right. As part of the negotiations that followed the last vote, Ireland secured agreement that the current arrangement, under which all EU member states have a commissioner, will continue in force. And so the Fianna Fail item goes on to say:

Having listened to those concerns and secured new guarantees we now know that if we vote in favour of Lisbon we will always have a Commissioner representing Ireland. We will have a Commissioner fifteen years out of fifteen.  That is a significant improvement on what we were voting for last year and a key difference to last year’s referendum.

A similar point is made on a Fine Gael website, and also on the Labour Party’s website.

Two points could be made on all this. One is that the entire EU debate over the past year or two has been stuffed full with confusion and misinformation. Ireland’s entitlement to a Commissioner was compromised by the Nice Treaty, not Lisbon, and voting last year for Lisbon would have made no difference to that whatsoever (though admittedly, voting no provided a bit of leverage in the matter). But secondly, and much more importantly, are we at risk of producing a parish pump framework for Europe? Ireland’s EU Commissioner is not there to represent Ireland, but rather to apply him- or herself to the tasks of the portfolio. They are not there (to pick up the wording of the Fianna Fail item above) to make Ireland’s voice heard. Furthermore, if every member state (including, say, Malta) must have a Commissioner all the time, and if we are not yet finished with new accessions, then it will not be long before those portfolios become meaningless because they will have to be distributed to so many. The wonderful 1970s satirical TV programme Hall’s Pictorial Weekly had a government with some interesting ministerial responsibilities, including the ‘Minister for Gateposts and Telegraph Poles’, and the ‘Minister for Foreign Air Fares’. We might not be too far from that in the European Commission.

I suppose it will help the yes campaign to have this assurance, but I cannot help wondering whether its achievement is a sign of a European project that is more and more at risk of being dragged down to something increasingly meaningless. Of course it would be less satisfactory if, for some periods, there were not to be an Irish Commissioner. But we can make our presence felt in many other ways, and the place to protect Ireland’s interests is not in the Commission, but the Council of Ministers.

Oh well.

The Lisbon referendum

September 5, 2009

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.

The Europeans

November 25, 2008

Every so often the European Union conducts surveys to ascertain how the citizens in the member states feel about EU membership. The most recently published of these was conducted in the spring of this year (2008), and it has some interesting findings about Irish attitudes. We are amongst the most enthusiastic Europeans: 73 per cent of us believe that EU membership is a good thing – the second highest percentage in Europe, just behind the Netherlands at 75 per cent, and equal to the citizens of Luxembourg, and just ahead of the (aspirational) views of the people of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, not yet in membership but feeling 72 per cent positive about the prospect. On the other end of the list, some of the newer member states have hardly got their foot in the door and their citizens have already become major Eurosceptics: only 29 per cent of Latvians, and 32 per cent of Hungarians, think their membership is good for the country.

Curiously, while the Irish are amongst the most positive, when this is boiled down to specific issues it’s all just ho-hum for us. The survey asks what issues arising out of EU membership matter to people, and in other countries large majorities say they like the Euro, the say it gives Europe in the world, peace and stability and so forth; and others cite the negatives, such as loss of identity, waste of money and bureaucracy. And us: well, we don’t seem to care too much about either the good or the bad things; we’re not particularly enthused by the positives, and not particularly bothered by the negatives. It seems we like being in Europe, but we’re not absolutely sure why.

It’s this kind of woolly vagueness about Europe that probably dooms the increasingly problematic Treaty referendums. We’re OK with where we are, but we don’t have a sufficient feel for the European project to want to go anywhere else with it.

Some pro-Lisbon commentators in Ireland have blamed the government for the defeat of the proposal in the referendum in June of this year. I have to say I don’t buy that. I think the problem is that Europe has moved to develop a constitutional framework for the Union without having worked enough on shared constitutional values. I would suggest that if Lisbon had been put to a vote almost anywhere else it would also have suffered the same fate. I don’t actually believe that a strong anti-Europe groundswell is forming in Ireland, more a growing puzzlement as to what it’s all about and where it’s going. I suspect that a two page statement of values (depending of course on how framed) would stand a much better chance of success at the polls than dozens of pages of intricate text that, frankly, nobody is going to read.

Furthermore, a Treaty which has the following key statements in its preamble (where in fact you might have expected some philosophical underpinning of the strategy) isn’t going to set the world on fire:

(b) In the seventh, which shall become the eighth, recital, the words ‘of this Treaty’ shall be replaced by ‘of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,’; 

(c) In the eleventh, which shall become the twelfth, recital, the words ‘of this Treaty’ shall be replaced by ‘of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,’ .

In fact, what Europe needs to develop much more strongly is a vision – not so much a vision of enlargement and empowerment of institutions, but a vision of our place in the world and how Europe can make a difference for the better.

Of course I have been unfair above in my comment and my quote. The ‘real’ Treaty is the consolidated version – i.e. the amended original Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, as it now reads (or would read) after the Lisbon amendments. But here we almost shoot into the opposite extreme: the first few articles are so brimming over with values on really everything that the impact is lost. Think of something modern and liberal, and it’s mentioned there somewhere. As you get into it, you almost expect to see a statement there as to the conduct of referees in the UEFA Champions’  League. It’s simply too much, too ‘motherhood-and-apple-strudel’, too unfocused.

I believe strongly that we should have voted yes to Lisbon, and feel that we have done ourselves some serious damage. But I also believe this was unstoppable, and I don’t think that it’s the government’s fault (while not denying that the campaign was not well run). I suspect that the Irish really were the proxy voters for the rest of Europe, who would mostly have voted the same way. And I was not impressed with the tut-tutting that came from other European leaders after the June referendum.

I believe that a functioning and visible European Union is hugely desirable, as we stand to get sidelined between the growth of the major Asian countries in the East and a perhaps resurgent United States under President Obama in the West. But we won’t get that as Europe is paralysed between weak and technocratic leadership at one level and insecure nationalisms at another. And because we can’t expect all that to come out of Brussels right now, we should make a start in Ireland. Not by trying to explain Lisbon (which is a lost cause), but by taking a lead in he debate on real values and areas for a European priority focus. We need a European (and Europe-wide) strategy that is visionary and makes some difficult choices. We need new life for a new European project.


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