by Frank Schnittger
Tue Jun 17th, 2008 at 06:48:25 PM EST
We're starting to get some slightly harder data on why Ireland voted no in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. A telephone poll of 2000 people taken over the week-end and commissioned by the European Commission in conjunction with the Taoiseach's office has found that:
- Three quarters of people who voted No in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty believed that the text could be renegotiated later by the Government - but just 40% of yes voters thought the same
- Three quarters of No voters also believe that rejecting the treaty would have no impact on the Irish economy. Of the YES voters, 55 per cent thought that rejecting the Lisbon treaty would hurt the Irish economy and 67 per cent believed that a no vote would weaken Ireland's influence within the EU
- 80 per cent of No voters support Irish membership of the EU
- When asked to give a single reason for voting No, some 40 per cent of people replied that they didn't understand the treaty. A fifth of respondents said they voted No to protect Irish identity while 17 per cent of respondents said they didn't trust politicians or Government policies. Other reasons cited for voting No where to protect Irish neutrality (10 per cent), to keep an Irish EU Commissioner (10 per cent) and to protect the tax system (8 per cent)
- A majority of women voted No while a majority of men voted Yes.
- Young people between the age of 15 and 29 voted against the treaty by a factor of two to one, a finding that is labelled as "very serious" in an explanation of the result prepared for European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. This explanation concludes that the "no side" in the referendum campaign saw little negative fall out from their vote. "It's almost risk-free," notes the paper
- When asked what the No vote would mean in the future: 84 per cent of people said it would keep Ireland's tax system; 83 per cent said it would keep Irish neutrality; 77 per cent said the Government would renegotiate; 60 per cent said the Nice treaty would remain in place; and 59 per cent said that Irish decisions on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage would prevail.
- The paper says that most people who abstained from voting in the referendum said they needed more information.
- A more comprehensive analysis of the results will probably be published by the Commission later this week
The bottom line seems to be that No voters are predominantly young and female, support EU membership, don't expect a NO vote to have serious negative consequences, expect the Treaty to be re-negotiated, voted no because they didn't understand the treaty or wanted to protect Ireland's identity and didn't trust the politicians. Lesser issues included neutrality, tax, loss of the Commissioner, and control over moral issues.
The poll confirms my suspicions that age was a critical factor in the vote, with younger voters taking the EU for granted, feeling they didn't understand what the Treaty meant and wanting to give the political classes a shot across the bows.
If the poll is accurate, then renegotiating and re-voting on the Treaty shouldn't be as controversial a course of action as it was for Nice II. People more or less expect that to happen anyway.
What is critical is that there is a much more comprehensive information campaign and that a number of very simply worded and direct protocols are added emphasising that the Treaty has no impact on Ireland's Neutrality, Taxation system, and control over moral issues.
None of this should be a problem for Ireland's EU partners, and so this referendum result could yet turn out to have been no more than a storm in a teacup and a temporary set back.
However I would caution against these results being taken too literally. Having secured a famous victory, the NO side are not going to concede the high ground too easily. The issues have a way of changing even as the initial stated issues are addressed and resolved.
Expect the NO campaigners to hold out for retaining the Commissioner full time - which would require a re-ratification of the Treaty in those countries that have already ratified it - probably not a deal breaker - but also more difficult changes such as the reduction in Ireland's voting strength in the weighted majority voting system - which would unravel the whole deal.
They will also seek to put pressure on the Government on a whole range of totally extraneous issues - cutbacks in CAP subventions, Fishing quotas, fuel prices, employment issues, health services etc. This will now become a vote of confidence issue for the Government as a whole. and everyone with a grudge or a bee in their bonnet about something will somehow want to use this as a reason for threatening to vote no precisely because they know the Government is desperate to secure a Yes vote.
The process for arriving at a decision on the best way forward, for marketing the protocols and opt-outs added to the Treaty, and for presenting the whole package as a considered response to a searching analysis by the Irish Government of the reasons for the no vote - and not some capitulation to foreign pressure - will be critical in securing popular acceptance that a second poll is justified, and that a more positive outcome will likely be secured.
This essentially political task plays to the strengths of the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, and it will be the defining task for his premiership. Timing will be critical, and particularly events at the Mahon Tribunal - where Bertie Ahern's evidence has become the subject of general incredulity and mirth - need to have receded from the public consciousness.
Any time this year for a new referendum will probably be too soon. However I could see a package emerging whereby the referendum will be put to the people a second time simultaneously with the European Parliament Elections next year.
If the European Parliament where also given a special role to produce a road map for the future post Lisbon development of the EU - in particular addressing such popular concerns as accountability, transparency and a greater degree of democratic control - then the sting could also be taken out of the popular discontent with those issues.
I could see a situation where the Government could win that referendum, but also take a hammering from Sinn Fein et al in the European Parliament elections. The Irish electorate are quite good at making discriminating choices: using the European Parliament elections to register their protest at the Government but letting the Lisbon Treaty pass - having made their point.
The question is, can the rest of the EU wait that long, and can other EU leaders keep their patience and not appear to be disrespectful to the Irish electorate and bullying towards the Irish Government. If not, then they might as well go back to the drawing board. Irish people do not respond well to threats.
On balance, I am a lot more hopeful that this will turn out to be but a temporary setback in the development of the EU. It will also force a greater re-appraisal of what needs to be done before further enlargement can take place. British Eurosceptics who hope that the Irish vote will be their launchpad for a reversal of the EU project will find few allies within Ireland. If anything, a stronger and more coherent EU could emerge from the experience.
Certainly, it is to be hoped, that the Irish Government and EU Council will never again put such a poorly drafted and explained document before the Irish people. If they want to re-energise the EU project, they are going to have to become much better at re-connecting that project with ordinary citizens throughout the EU.
The next European Parliament elections will be key to this. Up until now the European Parliament has appeared to be only barely relevant to the whole process. This has got to change, and it has got to start harnessing more of the energies of EU citizens to the EU project.