The Meaning of No: Why Ireland Sank the Lisbon Treaty


Last week Irish citizens voted on a referendum to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. As the results rolled in — the Irish rejected it — European leaders were quick to express their dismay, saying the Emerald Isle’s “no” would send them back to the drawing board.

The Treaty of Lisbon, also known as the Reform Treaty, emerged from the political desire to simplify European institutions (recent expansions made them less and less efficient). Negotiations on the treaty began in 2001 after European Union citizens rejected the European constitution. The resulting document, signed on December 13, 2007, in Lisbon, was to be ratified by all member states by the end of 2008, in time for EU elections next year.

It was not to be. Ireland was the only nation of the 27-member European Union to hold a referendum. According to the Irish Constitution, surrendering any sovereignty to an outside organization — including the EU — is a decision reserved to the people. In other member states, this was not the case, and government leaders were able to push the treaty through without the approval of their people. French President Nicholas Sarkozy even admitted that there would be no treaty if it had been put to a referendum in France. 

The Irish vote effectively halted the accord, leading President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel jointly to express their disappointment over the “Irish incident.”

Even before the referendum took place, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner threatened Ireland with “negative consequences” should they vote no, a sure way to fire up the Fighting Irish. Indeed, voter turnout, generally low for EU matters, was at an unprecedented high, with 1.6 million votes cast; the treaty fell to a 6.8 percent margin, 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent.


Most Lisbon experts, including the document’s creators, agree that the reformed treaty is a re-heated version of the failed European constitution, which was firmly rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. 

One of the chief architects of the failed constitution, former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, acknowledged that “the difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content.” This new strategy, he explained, “is to keep a part of the innovations of the constitutional treaty and to split them into several texts in order to make them less visible.”

According to d’Estaing, the result would be that “the public opinion would therefore unknowingly adopt the dispositions that it would not accept if presented directly.”

It probably seemed like a good idea. The treaty is fantastically complex, running to some 3,000 pages in its unabridged form. According to Irish legal expert Caroline Simons, the 287-page condensed version contains “article after article referring to article,” leaving would-be informed voters clueless. Furthermore, understanding the referendum requires a working knowledge of the details contained in treaties that have preceded this one. Even the information leaflet distributed in Ireland was virtually meaningless, repeatedly dismissing points with, “The precise details of how this will operate in practice have yet to be decided.”

David Quinn, director of the Dublin-based Iona institute, said the overwhelming response to the referendum was one of “total confusion.”

“The number of people in the country who have read the document through can be counted on two hands, while the number of people who actually understand it are virtually zero,” he told me.

Both Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and Foreign Minister Michael Martin admitted that they had not read even the condensed treaty through, while European commissioner Charlie McCreevy said he would not expect “any sane and sensible person” to tackle it from cover to cover.

But Simons, one of the few who has read and grasped the treaty, said the Lisbon accord contains elements over and above the what the failed EU constitution proposed, and that the implications of those additions would only become clear once interpreted (presumably by an EU commission). In other words, it would be, as the Economist reported, a “try-on,” whose “effects would be clear only years later.”

There are several troubling aspects to the treaty.First, Simons argued, it allows for an unelected president and foreign minister of the European Union, which would subsequently be a new legal entity known as the Union. Because the treaty is so inscrutable, their roles and powers are not yet clear.

Second, the reformed rules mandate that each member state would lose its commissioner for five out of every 15 years, which would therefore make it more difficult for member states to veto new laws. The new treaty would also roll back veto power in an additional 60 new areas of so-called “exclusive competence.”

Moreover, under the new “qualified majority voting” that would go into effect in 2014, countries would be weighted based on a demographic and geographic formula. Because Ireland is a small nation, its voting power would be reduced to 1/20th that of Germany’s. Without representation and little voting power, Ireland could potentially be subject to new laws with no say at all.

Simons added that a top priority for the EU — and a cause of concern for Ireland — are the proposed rules on foreign direct investment and security. Should the treaty go into effect, each member state would have to get permission from the EU to invest in foreign countries. The “Common Corporate Consolidated Tax Board,” a tax harmonization policy that seeks to eliminate “unfair distortion of competition in the internal market,” would go into effect, neutralizing both the tax rate and base, and opening a back door to Ireland’s successful tax system. The consequence would be that foreign corporations with investments in Ireland would suddenly find themselves subject to EU tax laws, which could be devastating for Ireland and investors.

The treaty calls for the creation of a union army in Brussels, with each member state contributing 6 percent of its GDP to support the military. According to Simons, Sarkozy already has white papers drawn up for the new defense ministry.

Finally, the human-rights charter included in the treaty would be left to the interpretive powers of the European Court of Human Rights. Although Ireland secured a protocol that would protect the Irish constitution’s current laws on the right to life for mothers and the unborn, Simons points out that the treaty does have a loophole that allows for interference. A Polish case on abortion last year has already set precedent.


Even as the results from Ireland came in, there was already talk of a new referendum. When past treaties have been voted down by member nations, they are put forward again for another vote, usually with small concessions and added pressures. 

When Irish prime minister Cowen appears before the European commissioners this week, the pressure will be on to introduce a “Plan B” that Irish voters will accept.

As d’Estaing’s comments reveal, Ireland’s rejection of the treaty does not sit well with many of the European elite. It remains to be seen whether the EU’s aristocrats will tolerate democracy in practice, or will instead find a new way to parse Ireland’s ‘no.’


Irene Lagan is the general manager of Guadalupe Radio in Washington, DC. She is a former collaborator for the English language section of Vatican Radio, has written for several publications, and holds a Masters degree in philosophy. She served as managing editor at the National Catholic Bioethics Center while in Boston, and has been published in Ethics & Medics, the National Catholic Register, Zenit, Franciscan Way, the Arlington Catholic Herald, and The Boston Globe. In addition, she has taught university students as an adjunct professor and has consulted in the area of communications and development for non-profit organizations.

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