by Frank Schnittger
Tue Dec 18th, 2007 at 04:50:09 PM EST
As avid readers of ET will know, Ireland is the only EU Member state to put the EU Reform Treaty to popular vote as part of its ratification process. Given that all the other Member Governments have signed up to the Treaty, one can presume they will proceed to ratify it unless they lose the confidence of their respective Parliaments in the meantime.
Ireland thus becomes the key focus of the popular debate, and ratification is anything but assured. According to The Irish Times, TNS mrbi opinion poll. carried out in early November, support for the treaty has halved over the past two years. Just 25 per cent of people say they will vote Yes to the EU Reform Treaty, while 13 per cent intend to vote No and a massive 62 per cent say they don't know or have no opinion.
In a comparable poll on the EU Constitutional Treaty in March 2005, 46 per cent said they would vote Yes as against 12 per cent who would vote No and 42 per cent who had no opinion. Given that the content of the two treaties is almost identical, the sharp drop in support for the treaty indicates that the referendum result could be very close.
In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty despite the fact that it was supported by all the major political parties. A second referendum in 2002 reversed that vote after the insertion of a treaty clause underlining Irish neutrality. However, the real difference between 2001 and 2002 was the turnout which increased from 34% in 2001 to 50% in 2002. Given that the November opinion poll above showed that only 38% (= 25% for, 13% against) had made up their mind on how to vote, another low turnout is quite likely.
However, the main factor which may result in a low turnout (differentially damaging the yes vote) is the rapid decline in popularity of the Government led by Bertie Ahearn. The same poll showed that Fianna Fáil (by far the largest Government Party) had suffered a big drop in support since the general election (down nine percentage points to 33 per cent), while Mr Ahern's satisfaction rating had declined by 15 percentage points to 43 per cent.
To outsiders this may seem strange. Bertie Ahern is arguably Ireland's most successful Taoiseach ever. A senior Minister for most of the time since 1987, Prime Minister since 1997, he has succeeded in bringing the Northern Irish Peace Process to a successful conclusion ending a 30 year long civil insurgency/terrorist campaign, has presided over an almost three fold increase in Ireland's GDP, a doubling of employment, a reduction of unemployment from c. 15 to 5%, a reduction of National debt from c. 100% of GDP to c. 25%, , and has pioneered the negotiation of a series of "National Agreements" between the Government, Employers, The Trade Unions, Farmers, and the Voluntary/Community sector covering pay, taxation, social services etc. which are a model of consensus government of its kind.
In addition he has been quite influential (for a leader of a small country) at EU level in helping to broker inter-Governmental agreements on the EU Constitution and the Election of José Manuel Barroso as President of the EU Commission. Apparently he could have had the job himself had he so wanted.
So why the fall in his popularity, and what effect may this have on the outcome of the referendum on the Reform Treaty? Chiefly it is because of a series of revelations about his personal finances which have been uncovered by the Mahon tribunal enquiry into corruption in the public service. The evidence itself at most suggests a somewhat retarded sense of the ethical standards that should apply to a senior minister, rather than any actual corruption per se, but it has had a very corrosive impact on his credibility and popularity with the electorate at large - with three quarters of respondents to the above poll saying they did not find his evidence to the Tribunal credible.
Added to these difficulties, the last few months have seen a property market collapse and what seems like the final end of 15 years of the Celtic Tiger with future economic growth likely to halve from the 10 year average of c. 6% p.a. Somebody has to be to blame, and having basked in the sunshine, Ahern will also be most exposed to the rain. Accepting a large pay increase which made him and his ministers better paid than their equivalents in many larger European Countries only compounded the problem. The public backlash is only looking for an opportunity to unleash itself, and the Reform Treaty referendum is unfortunately the first poll to heave into view.
The nascent political campaign to secure the ratification of the EU Reform Treaty is kicking off on all the notes I feared in my earlier Diaries on Is there such a thing as a European identity?
and Our European Identity
Letter writers to The Irish Times (regrettably requiring a paid subscription to access) have kicked off the debate with all the expected themes:
1) EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy's unfortunate statement that a failure to endorse the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty would make us the laughing stock of Europe.
2) Bertie Ahern stating that an Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty would mean "we would cut ourselves apart from Europe" (December 14th).
3) Allegations that the Treaty will compromise Ireland's (largely fictional) neutrality and force it to increase and integrate its (largely non-existent) defence forces with those of the EU - see initial rejection of Nice
4) That the Reform Treaty should be rejected regardless of its content, because of the "arrogance and contempt" for the principle of subsidiarity and democracy implied in the EU Leaders joint decision to avoid popular Referendums wherever constitutionally possible.
5) The fact that the Treaty is virtually unchanged from the "Constitution" already rejected by French and Dutch voters. This is a sore point in Ireland, as many people were annoyed that the Nice Treaty was put to the electorate a second time, virtually unchanged after the first defeat, and the sense that the Elite will continue to try to force it through until the electorate come up with the right answer.
6) The alleged sweeping under the carpet of Romania's human rights abuses by the EU Commission in order to facilitate a rushed and premature expansion of the EU
As against that, as recently as the March 2006 Eurobarometer Poll 56% of respondents in Ireland said that the European Union is going in the right direction as compared to a 39% average for the EU25 and 68% said that Ireland's membership of the EU was a good thing (vs. EU25 average of 49% good thing, 16% Bad thing). (As an aside, "a good thing" view of one's country's membership of the EU is more likely to be held by men, younger people, more highly educated people, and those on the left of the political spectrum).
However, when asked which elements would be most helpful for the future of Europe, far more Irish people mention an extension of the Euro to all EU countries (48% vs. 26% EU25 average) than a common constitution (15% vs. a 25% EU average). It seems thus that the Irish do not consider a common constitution (or the Reform Treaty) as being all that important for the future of Europe.
So to summarise: All the evidence suggests that the Irish are still very positively disposed towards Europe, have however become very negatively disposed towards their own Government, and the debate on the treaty is currently being led by those who feel that Ireland's political elite and their European counterparts are engaged in an elite project to push through a poorly understood treaty that is not seen by most voters to be all that important to the future of Europe.
Unless pro-treaty voices and parties can articulate much more clearly why the treaty is needed, what it beneficial effects will be, and why the electorate should bother to turn out to vote for it, there is a real danger that we will see a repeat of Nice 2001 which will be much more difficult to reverse in the future. We have one shot at getting this right.