Why did the Irish vote against the Lisbon Treaty and why should eurooptimists bother?

EU's gonna chip your kids

Many factors influenced the outcome of the first Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty, most of them were very well described and put in journalistic pseudo-causal reflections. One logic has however been systematically neglected both by media and scholars: the existence of numerous hordes of mistakenly defined eurosceptics.

Since the first “NO” in the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the euroscepticism has become a recurrent issue in European politics, sometimes present in formerly eurooptimist or highly “eurotolerant” countries such as Ireland. Nonetheless, with the long-term exception of the UK and recent ones of Hungary and Latvia, the Euroscepticism is still rather a minor issue. According to the recent Eurobarometer survey, despite the crisis and the growing problems of the Eurozone, only a significant minority (15% in autumn 2009) seems to be eurosceptical.

This article argues that the main problem of euroscepticism is not the core part of eurosceptics but the false understanding that EU officials have of euroscepticism. It  may lead to distortions in people’s perception of the European construction due mostly to the perceived illegitimacy and actual lack of democratic accountability. Ultimately, it may lead to much more catastrophic outcomes for the EU than the Irish NO to the Lisbon Treaty.

If you wish a full version of this article with bibliographical notes, contact me here.

The official euroscepticism

The European Commission has already acquired its fix and specific definition of euroscepticism. EU citizens, who answer “bad thing” to the Eurobarometer survey question “Generally speaking, do you think that your country’s membership in the EU is a good thing/bad thing?” are deemed eurosceptical. This defines euroscepticism in a very concrete but arbitrary manner. Mainly, it helps to evaluate very precisely how many so-called eurosceptics are on the European continent, but it does not reflect the perception of the EU’s role in long term nor all nuances of euroscepticism.

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The Eurobarometer question may be understood as a question about “remaining or leaving the EU” and as such is not precise in its assumptions. Many eurosceptical parties prefer to stay in the European Union under the “no alternative” clause and their electorate would rather choose the answer “neither good, nor bad”. This definition would neither describe very well those people, who may be very critical to the current EU policies, structures or unaccountability problems. They may think that membership of their country is not beneficiary, albeit they may have a some kind of European identity or share some degree of European cosmopolitan solidarity. To make definition of euroscepticism more concrete and real, it is necessary to use more than one all-embracing term.[1]

EU-scepticism

Let us call the opposition to the EU per se “EU-scepticism” and let us call the scepticism to its current political direction “current-EU-scepticism”. Both of these visions may be translated as euroscepticism according to the Eurobarometers’s methods, but they simply cannot be put to the same basket with eurosceptical nationalists or chauvinists, as they do not necessarily oppose the project of European unification but merely the current instruments chosen to its realisation.

Euroscepticism as such is a more general opposition to the European project; against the shift of democratic powers from nation-states towards the EU. Many eurosceptics, EU-sceptics and current-EU-sceptics may also overlap, but putting them under the same label would mean that the EU project is – in its current form – the only way to achieve European unity, which is simply not true.

According to the current assumed definition (Figure 1), critics of the EU and of its current policies are sub-group of general eurosceptics. According to definition of this article (Figure 2), it is the other way around: euroscepticism is only a particular sub-group encompassing those individuals, who may dislike the EU or its current politics. In other words: the fact that one is against current EU policy does not mean he is also against the EU as organisation. Similarly, the fact that someone is against the EU does not necessarily mean he is sceptical to the idea of united Europe. At the same time, one may be against the EU unification, while being pro-EU in its current, still significantly nationally determined form.

Types of Euroscepticism

The fact that the European Commission and to some extent also some scholars take into account the first definition (Figure 1) may lead to a very frustrating conclusions for those, who merely criticize the EU, but feel themselves European; in other words those, who would be happy to collaborate on a European level on a policy discussion. To these individuals, it may seem that the current EU is inseparably connected with its current policies and structures and that the only way to oppose them is to oppose the EU in its entirety.

The pro-European “NO” to the Lisbon Treaty?

According to different measures, Ireland is one of the most pro-European countries of the EU. Even before the negative outcome of the Lisbon Treaty referendum, the population was not eurosceptical and was approving the European project. How is it possible?

The Lisbon Treaty may be understood as continuing the shift towards a federalist entity. At the same tame, it may also be assessed as a pragmatic rearrangement and consolidation of power of the highly populated and powerful countries of the EU and reinforcement of national parliaments. As such, some Irish citizens refused the treaty for these reasons (among those, who did it for their pure euroscepticism) and revealed for the second time that a pro-European member-state may react negatively to what was presented as a logical and unquestionable continuation of the European integration.

It has never been more visible in the history of the EU than during the Lisbon treaty ratification process: many Irish citizens would welcome a short constitutional document establishing basic norm for the European Union, but not the Lisbon Treaty nor the failed Treaty establishing the Constitution of Europe (TECE). That was also the moment, when many pro-Europeans have expressed their current-EU-scepticism by voting against these treaties, which was understood as a sign of euroscepticism an sich.

This does not prove that the Constitutional treaty would have passed, were it shorter and more federalist. It is merely to argue that many individuals would have preferred more or different integration than the TECE or the Lisbon Treaty proposed and felt at the end forced to join the eurosceptical camp by voting “NO”.

Who are the real eurosceptics?

As Simon Hix puts it, it is difficult to argue that the European Union is a fully democratic institution. Of course, some legitimate and democratic principles are there, but it does not seem to be enough. There is a clear lack of political and democratic competition and democratic accountability. Not only the European Parliament elections are held following national themes and cleavages, but also referenda about EU treaties are more influenced by the position of the incumbent governments than by the EU itself or its treaties.

The paradox of euroscepticism in this context is following: real eurosceptics are the first to criticize the European Union for its democratic deficit, but they would not do anything to democratise it. A democratisation of the European Union would make it more legitimate and thus more powerful. Eurosceptics do not want the EU to become more democratic as it may weaken their own positions.

At the same time, national representatives of states with big negotiation powers have also their interest in not pushing towards the direct democratic link between citizens and the EU and prefer the status quo, where not only nation-states are the major policy authors, but they may pursue their decision-making with less control than in their national governments. This leads to a conclusion that major eurosceptics, who often designate themselves as strong proponents of the EU, are actually nation-state representatives themselves.

Why should we (not) democratise the EU?

The right of the European Parliament to vote the President of the Commission was proposed during the Committee on Future of Europe (which prepared the draft text of the Treaty establishing Constitution for Europe). This provision could have reinforced remarkably the democratic accountability of the commission, raise its legitimacy and improve the over-all image of the EU, without making it more populist or vulnerable to democratic earthquakes. These provisions were however aborted by Germany and France in the very beginning as unacceptable.

The necessity of a strong EU was also a major argument for the Lisbon Treaty. Even though, few days after its ratification, the European Council behind a close door have chosen two completely unknown personalities, the far least known and with the littlest possible political credit. They have improved their positions ever since, but it does not change much: motivations, with which they were elected, were to limit the EU’s autonomy. It is remarkable to say, that strong personalities (such as Tony Blair, Guy Verhofstadt, Carl Bildt or David Milliband) were vetoed – once more – by France and Germany.

In this context, the Lisbon Treaty provision of passing presidencies from nation-states to permanent representatives was probably not a measure of willing a stronger EU, but rather a better environment for current nation-state control with few accountability and much blame-avoidance mechanisms.

Still getting ever closer?

The democratic deficit benefits to both clear-cut eurosceptics and national states. The latter have strong positions in the current EU and the former would loose their raison d’être. Both of the groups are reluctant to pass powers to a more democratic and independent supranational entity. The definition of euroscepticism is thus blurred as those, who are today called eurosceptics, may in reality be much more pro-European than those, who promote the current politics of the EU.

This is in no way a sane situation. The European Union should seek more of the direct democratic connection to its people to avoid the obscure influence of national interests. This is not to say, that the EU should democratise itself at any price: there is a clear tendency of bias of democracy on the European level. However, there are clear mechanisms to promote a more transparent and democratic EU without making it vulnerable to populism and other negative democratic drifts. Such measures are easy to introduce and virtually free. To be more concrete, Simon Hix proposes simple reforms such as minute-taking during the sessions of the European Council or the direct designation of the President of the Commission by the newly elected European Parliament.

If the EU does not change its internal paradigm, it risks more than failed referenda on its treaties (five up to now and all overruled). It risks also to loose the connection to the idealised ideal of its Founding Fathers as well as the 1983 provision of “ever closer union”.


[1] Some politicians define themselves as EU-sceptical but pro-European in the sense of separate European nations. This article does not take into account this vision, as it does not seem necessary to make a separate word for a specific sentiment towards a concrete continent or its culture. What may be described as European culture is more widely a Western culture and is shared to a big extent by Northern Americans, Australians or even Southern Americans. In this context, it does not make sense to speak about specific continental European culture without taking into account its development after the Second World War and thus also the ‘European project’. Speaking about pro-Americanism or pro-Asianism may be examples ad absurdum of this assumption. I admit at the same time, that this limitation may be arbitrary.

[2] What concretely means a more democratic EU is a complex question but it is clear that the most legitimate body of the EU, the European Parliament has far few powers in determining, who is going to lead the European Union. Not only they can choose only from the propositions of the Council about the personality of the President of the Commission, but also they do not make political pressure on national states to nominate commissioners according to the political outcome of European elections. There is thus no direct link between the European Parliament elections and the constitution of the de facto executive body. This major democratic principle of government formation according to the electoral outcome is thus seriously biased. Even the Lisbon Treaty, which was presented as pushing the European Union towards a more democratic regime does not resolve anything of the core EU’s democratic problems and in some ways even reinforce the role and powers of nation-states, their parliaments and their direct representatives in the Council.

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About Ales Chmelar

Economist. Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

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