eurotopics, 25 June 2008

Dead or alive?

What should be the next step after the Irish No-vote? Europe’s press discusses the European Union’s options

“When the French say ‘no’, Europe has a problem. When Ireland says ‘no’, Ireland has a problem.” This was British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash’s succinct summary of the reactions to the Irish rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon in the British daily The Guardian on 19 June 2008. A week before, on 12 June 2008, Irish voters had decided by a majority of 109,964 votes against ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon – the revised version of the EU constitution. Just as a reminder: the French and the Dutch both held referendums in which they rejected the European constitution in 2005. Europe’s various media have stressed different aspects in the discussion about the Irish No. The Hungarian daily Népszabadság complained on 15 June 2008 about the fact that a comparatively small country like Ireland had the power to bring the EU reform process to a standstill. Endre Aczél expressed surprise that “well below a million Irish are holding almost 500 million citizens of the Union hostage. The situation is completely absurd.”

Precisely because the Treaty of Lisbon is essentially a reform of the highly complex voting procedure within EU institutions and less a matter of deciding a political course of action, many European media have condemned the idea of putting the Treaty to referendum. “The vote on the Treaty of Lisbon should have been made by the Irish parliament – not for the sake of getting the ‘right result’ but because of its complexity,” the Swedish daily Upsala Nya Tidning argued on 16 June 2008. “There’s nothing wrong or undemocratic about letting elected representatives make the decisions. That is how parliamentary democracy works,” it added. Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 15 June 2008, Stefan Kornelius likewise criticised the Irish referendum: “Can you just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a work of this complexity? The Irish government made a terrible mistake in believing it could shrink the implications of a form of organisation down to a simple alternative.”

But there were also those who praised the Irish referendum. Czech President Vaclav Klaus sees the Irish No as a vote against the entire European project: “The whole of Europe should thank the Irish for putting a stop to this misguided process that leads to even greater uniformity, the repression of the nation state and a Europe of regions,” he told the Czech daily Lidove Noviny on 16 June 2008. “We should not allow Czechs, Poles, Italians or Danes to be turned into ‘Europeans’. ‘Europeanness’, like Esperanto, is artificial and dead.”

So what remains of Europe after the failure of an EU treaty that had already been revised? A loose conglomeration of states? Did the vision of an “ever closer union” which was one of the stated aims of the Treaty of Rome die with Ireland’s rejection? Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer summed up the situation on the website of the German weekly Die Zeit: “We [should] seriously consider whether it would not be better for all those involved and also for Europe if, within the framework of the Treaty of Nice and on the basis of the Common Market, the two camps were to go their separate ways. Those member states that want political integration should go ahead; those that are satisfied with the Common Market should stay behind.”

In the Swiss Tagesanzeiger of 19 June 2008, Luciano Ferrari suggested the stronger involvement of national parliaments. “Perhaps we should reconsider the old proposal for setting up a second chamber in addition to the European Parliament, made up of national parliamentarians who approve EU laws on an equal basis.” And on 19 June 2008 the French daily Le Monde brought up the idea of a “great European debate”: “Many of those in positions of responsibility realise that the Irish No is proof of a deep chasm between the citizens and the European elite. Some of them see this as a reason to start all over again and call together a new convention to ensure the support of the people regarding the continuation of the European project.”

At the EU summit that followed close on the heels of the Irish No-vote, Europe’s heads of state and government first of all tried to pour oil on troubled water and get the EU back on track after this setback. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed for the process of ratification of the EU Treaty to continue. The Austrian daily Die Presse was decidedly unimpressed with this approach: “It is not only ignorant but also reckless of the European Commission and certain EU governments to insist on the continuation of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty,” Wolfgang Böhm wrote on 18 June 2008, adding: “It is almost like parents forcing their children to finish their homework even though the whole neighbourhood around them, including the school, is on fire.” One possible solution now seems to be a repetition of the referendum, along the lines of what was done after the Irish rejected the Treaty of Nice seven years ago and, more recently, after the EU constitution failed in France and the Netherlands in 2005.