The Irish have finally voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty – and with an overwhelming majority. Some 67.1 percent said ‘Yes’ to European reform, with only 32.9 percent voting against. Turnout was high at 58 percent compared to 53.13 percent in June 2008 when some 53.4 percent of Irish people rejected the Treaty. The economic and financial crisis did its bit to change the minds of the Irish who over the past 16 months have come to realise how much they need the support from Brussels.
Especially farmers have been changing their minds since the last referendum, and with unemployment and emigration figures hitting new heights, Ireland seems to have understood that the bureaucrats in Brussels are not there to punish them with new rules, but to help. With special conditions put into place to protect strict Irish laws on abortion, even the Catholic Church came out in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. Or at least the bishops said that the Irish would now be able to decide either way without compromising their consciences as good Catholics.
Political leaders all over Europe have hailed the Irish referendum as a great success. Above all, the recently re-elected EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso who said on Saturday the ‘Yes’ vote was a “sign that Ireland recognises the role that the European Union has played in responding to the economic crisis”, and of course Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen of Fianna Fáil who would have been likely to lose his job had the vote gone the other way.
So is all well now?
That depends on what happens next. For instance, whether Poland and the Czech Republic now decide to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon asap or not, and whether the Conservative party leader David Cameron goes ahead with Tory plans for a referendum in the UK. With general elections looming next year he is likely to watch opinion polls very closely before committing to anything.
The European press meanwhile has come out largely in favour of Europe. “The European Union has proved its ability to reform,” and defied the sceptics who didn’t believe this would ever happen, writes Martin Winter in the left-liberal German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Germany’s Financial Times Deutschland called the decision in favour of the Treaty a “great relief”, and Andreu Missé writes in the Spanish daily El País that “the victory of the Irish ‘Yes’ vote for the Lisbon Treaty has put an end to eight years of European institutional incertitude,“ while the French daily Libération thinks that “all eyes will be on Poland and the Czech republic“ now, where the Treaty is yet to be ratified.
Rafael Behr in The Guardian calls on conspiracy theorists in the UK and elsewhere to understand “that there is no conspiracy; that the EU is an alliance of sovereign nations … ; that the Lisbon Treaty is just one in a parade of flawed but worthwhile compromises required to make a multinational alliance work. Dull, but true.“
The Irish press on the other hand, was less enthusiastic. In the liberal Irish Times Stephen Collins denounced the only “half-hearted approach to the referendum of so many of those involved in all the pro-Lisbon parties“ in Ireland. The conservative Irish Independent meanwhile saw the process leading to the second referendum as the final step in the “disenfranchisement of those who had voted ‘No’“ The first time round.
But, no matter how much has gone wrong ahead of the referendum Ireland’s decision in favour of Europe clearly was a historic moment. As much as I hate the inflationary use of the term ‘historic’, it is highly unusual, maybe even unprecedented, to have a second referendum on an issue that was rejected only 16 months earlier – and with such a clear change of mind on the part of the electorate. And of course there is a historical dimension to the Irish vote as well, as columnists and leader writers didn’t fail to notice.
Ahead of the vote, Irish diplomat Michael Lillis had warned in the conservative Irish Independent that a “No” to the Lisbon Treaty could have put Ireland back where it was in the 1950s, into “submissive dependence on Britain, with all that that entailed … in terms of humiliation, poverty, emigration and authoritarian hopelessness.“ Anything but a “Yes“, according to Lillis, would have been “throwing away the freedom … won“ since Ireland joined the European Community in 1973“ and “the first real freedom we have enjoyed since independence“ from Britain in the 1920s.
As far the future of the European integration process is concerned, a “No” would have been disastrous as the Slovenian daily Delo had warned. The EU has no plan B, and in the event of a failure of a second referendum, the Swedish EU Council presidency would have had “to pick up all the pieces”. Luckily, this has not happened. Even the foremost Eurosceptic and Czech president Vaclav Klaus might yet change his mind. After the voting in Ireland he said there would “never be another referendum in Europe” – a comment the BBC’s Europe editor Gavin Hewitt took as the words of “a politician who knows he’ll be signing [the Treaty] soon.”
Rafael Behr in The Guardian sends a warning to David Cameron not to undermine the European integration process by stubbornly insisting on a British referendum. In the face of the crisis and the challenges of the 21st century, Europe has to defend its place in a globalised world, as Behr writes. It can no longer rely on its former power and glory: “The 21st century will be different. China and India already lay claim to superpower status. Russia imperiously waves its nuclear arsenal and natural gas reserves as a VIP pass to international summits. Brazil has economic and diplomatic aspirations equal to its geographical expanse.“ In the light of those changes “the rivalries of last century need to be held in perspective against the advantages of collaboration on a range of global issues: trade, security of energy supply, cross-border crime, climate change, migration, financial stability. Whether the EU can forge a common position on those things is one of the biggest foreign policy challenges of our times. It would be reassuring if Britain was ready to play its part.“
Whatever happens now, the Irish ‘Yes’ to the Lisbon Treaty is a significant step on the road towards European reform.