Irish voters say NO to Lisbon Treaty

The Lisbon Treaty was signed by the member countries of the European Union (EU) in December 2007. Before coming into effect on 1 January 2009 it has to be ratified by all the 27 member states of the EU. Prior to the Irish referendum 18 countries had already done so. On 13 June, the result of the Irish referendum was declared. On a turn-out of 53 per cent, the Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty by a majority of 54.4 percent to 47.6 per cent.

This result was nothing short of a bombshell, for it represented a kick in the teeth of the political and business establishment of Ireland and the European Union alike and a hammer blow to the morale of the political elite.

Disconnect between the elite and the people

The result of the Irish referendum is yet another proof of the disconnect between the institutions, polices and the direction of the EU and its people, representing a gulf between the EU business and political elite, on the one hand, and the popular sentiment of its people, on the other hand. It is not the first time that the brave and independent-minded people of Ireland have rejected a treaty concocted by the kings of finance of the EU. In 2001, they rejected the Nice Treaty, albeit on a smaller turn-out of 35 per cent. The following year, after a few cosmetic changes to hoodwink the Irish electorate, the latter were manipulated into voting Yes for essentially the same document.

Nor are the Irish alone in saying No to EU treaties. Given the chance, voters have repeatedly rejected EU treaties – from the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 by the Danes to the 2005 rejection of the EU Constitution by the Dutch and the French.

These rejections in referenda in the countries mentioned above, over a period of 15 years, have come about because the people do not like the direction in which the EU has been heading. By and large ordinary people are not in favour of the EU’s slow but sure march towards the achievement of the Franco-German bourgeoisie’s project (shared by the bourgeoisies of Italy, Spain and some others) of a more closely integrated (federalist) Europe, resting on the foundation of the monetary union. This European integration process is encapsulated in the Lisbon Treaty, which in turn is nothing but the European Constitution (minus the flag and national anthem) except in name – a constitution already rejected by the Dutch and the French electorates.

The Lisbon Treaty does, as did the rejected EU Constitution, provide for a full-time president, a foreign policy chief with enhanced powers and a fully fledged EU diplomatic service; it strengthens the role in EU policymaking of the 15-strong group of Eurozone countries (soon to rise to 16 next January with the accession of Slovakia to this group).

The Irish No is a blow to these ambitions as the treaty can only come into effect on ratification by all the 27 member states. Delivering a crushing blow to the ambitions of the bourgeoisie of several EU countries, especially that of Germany and France, who are determined to create an imperialist European power, rivalling the US and Japan, contending on a global scale for markets, sources of raw materials and avenues of export of capital, the Irish voters have sent shockwaves and shaken and stirred the political and business representatives of finance capital of these countries.

In saying No, the Irish voters had concerns of their own, ranging from tax, energy, the environment, sovereignty and neutrality to the future of public services, rights of working people, the ever-increasing privatisation of health, education, transport and water. The 862,415 Irish voters (0.2 per cent of the EU’s 497 million population) have stopped the EU dead in its tracks.

Response of the establishment

Apart from Sinn Fein, all the Irish political parties and the entire business elite supported the Yes campaign. European Round Table of Industry, with a membership of 40 of the largest European corporations, which has been the driving force behind the federalist European project, was devastated by the Irish No vote. Equally revealing was the outburst of BusinessEurope, the European-wide employers association, which expressed its extreme irritation at the Irish vote thus: “European business leaders deplore the outcome of the Irish referendum. The business community cannot afford to be bogged down in another institutional crisis”.

Similarly, the political establishment of several imperialist countries in the EU has expressed its disappointment and frustration at the Irish referendum result. “We are incredibly disappointed”, said Axel Schäfer, a member of the German Bundestag committee on EU affairs. “We think that it is a real cheek that the country that has benefited most from the EU should do this. There is no other Europe than this treaty”.

Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, was equally forthright in his disapproval of the Irish No, even suggesting that Ireland be sidelined from the European project. “Now is the time”, he said, “for a courageous choice by those who want coherent progress in building Europe, leaving out whose who, despite solemn pledges, threaten to block it”.

The response of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to the Irish No is reliably reported to be simply unprintable.

Even the president of tiny Croatia, Stipe Mesic, in an attempt to ensure that his country’s impending accession to the EU will go ahead, castigated the Irish for allegedly being ungrateful. “Now that they [the Irish] have used the accession and structural funds, when they developed enormously, I am a little surprised that the solidarity is at an end”, he said.

Bourgeois democracy

The German Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Anarcho/Trot of the 1960s turned respectable bourgeois and leader of the European Greens, characterised the decision of the Irish electorate as undemocratic. “It is not truly democratic that less than a million people can decide the fate of almost half a billion Europeans”.

As is to be expected, in his endeavour to do menial work on behalf of European finance capital, Mr Cohn-Bendit ‘forgets’ that it is not a million people who are deciding the fate of half a billion Europeans. More to the point, it is only this million who, because of the compulsions of the Irish constitution, have been allowed a democratic say on this all too important question. Had the governments of the other 26 EU states had the courage to let in their respective electorates on this democratic process, the likelihood is that the Lisbon Treaty would have been rejected in a number of countries. After all its predecessor, the EU Constitution, whose provisions were substantially similar to those of the Lisbon Treaty, were rejected by the Dutch and the French electorates. European finance capital has so burnt its fingers by dabbling in that democratic process that it dare not repeat the exercise in case it gets the same unpleasant result. So, almost all other governments, including the British, have denied their electorates any say in the question, on the spurious argument that the Lisbon document is only a treaty and not a constitution, being of the view that a change of nomenclature changes the essence of things.

Bourgeois democracy, especially in the era of imperialism, which seeks domination, not freedom, is saturated with hypocritical cant. If the results of elections do not suit the interests of capital, then the electorates much be blamed, or they must be asked to vote again and again until they get it ‘right’, or new electorates must be found to replace those refusing to produced the ‘right’ decision. The situation reminds one of Bertolt Brecht’s poem that if the governments were unhappy with their citizens:

“Would it not be easier In that case for the government To dissolve the people and elect another?”

This is precisely what the EU governments are proposing to do. They have already blamed the Irish, who, the implication is, were too stupid to understand the complicated provisions of the 287-page document, written as it was in an impenetrable legalese. It is being further argued that complex treaties focussing on institutional reform, since they are allegedly impossible for the average citizen to comprehend, should not be submitted to popular votes. Doubtless, if the Irish had voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, no one among the leading lights of bourgeois politics and business would have asserted that the Irish voted Yes merely because they did not understand this complex document!

Ratification to continue

Be that as it may, the business and political leaders are bent upon ignoring the Irish veto and getting around this inconvenient reality. Instead of accepting the Irish No as having killed the Lisbon Treaty, which is what under the current EU arrangements it has done, the leaders of the major EU countries, as well as the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, have called for the continuation of the process of approving the treaty. “The ratification process is made up of 27 national processes. Eighteen members-states have already approved the treaty, and the European Commission believes the remaining ratifications should continue to take their course”, said Mr Barroso, after the Irish referendum result.

Within hours of the Irish referendum, a Franco-German statement declared: “We give the democratic decision of Ireland’s citizens all the respect that it is due”, which is clearly not very much as the statement made it plain that the question of jettisoning the treaty simply did not arise, since it was needed “to make Europe more democratic and more efficient”. It would appear, then, that the only way to make Europe “more democratic” is by ignoring the democratic decision of the Irish electorate! This is precisely what the powers that be are bent upon doing. If the EU refused to accept the rejection of its Constitution by the Dutch and the French voters in the referendums in 2005, what prospect is there that the Irish would get away with their rejection of Lisbon, which, in the words of Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, who presided over the original convention, was no different from the constitution rejected in 2005? As far as European finance capital is concerned, nothing must be allowed to block the creation of an EU imperialist bloc, streamlined and made ‘efficient’ through deregulation, liberalisation and wholesale privatisation, as a prelude to encroaching on the turf of its rival imperialist powers, oppressing further still the oppressed and super-exploited hundreds of millions of peoples in the vast continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America and suppressing working-class dissent at home.

It is precisely for this reason that European capital, and its political representatives, are determined to reject the democratic decision of the Irish electorate in the name (you guessed it right) of democracy! Just as in 2002, the Irish will be made to vote again, and again, until they come up with the ‘right’ verdict.

Even the British Labour Government of Gordon Brown, which is supposed to be sceptical of European integration, has pushed ahead with parliamentary ratification. When Mr Brown attended the Summit of the EU Heads of State and Government on 19-20 June, he already had this ratification in his bag. The Czechs are expected to cause some problems, but in the end they will be ‘persuaded’ to go along with the ratification of this treaty. By the time the other 26 states have ratified the treaty, the Irish government will be under almost unbearable pressure to roll over – with a barely disguised threat to take it or leave it. Between now and the end of the year, the EU leaders and bureaucrats will be working out some formula, a modified form of wording, which will in no way affect the essence of things, in order to get the Irish to endorse the treaty. European capital is pushing for an integrated Europe in order to be able to project its combined political and economic power effectively on a world stage presently dominated by US imperialism. If it cannot get the Lisbon Treaty accepted openly, it will try to do so by stealth.

Oppose this imperialist project

Equally, the working class of Europe does not much like this deepening integration, for, in the final analysis, this process is as much directed against it as against the rival powers of the European bourgeoisie and the oppressed people. The working class of Europe almost instinctively, not consciously with any degree of clarity, understands this. It is therefore not surprising that in Ireland, while the business and political establishment were on the side of the Yes to Lisbon Treaty, the urban working class, the rural poor and the progressive elements of society were on the No side – the Catholic right opposed to abortion, being the exception. A division along similar lines exists in other EU countries. It is the job of the proletarian revolutionaries to expose the imperialist essence of the federalist project, to enhance the understanding of the working masses as to the true essence of the integration process, and oppose it.