Earlier this month it was announced that Irish voters would be heading to the polls to vote on the new European fiscal compact. While this was a predicted outcome as Ireland’s constitutional obligations require a referendum, the media coverage of the referendum took a tone that sounded a bit like here we go again.
One can appreciate this jaded view on Irish referendums concerning the European Union (EU) as in the past, Irish voters have been a thorn in Brussels’ side since every EU Treaty since 1973 has had to pass through a referendum.Without a “Yes” result in a referendum, an EU Treaty cannot be ratified by the Irish Government. As a result, Irish voters have held up two separate treaties with a “No” vote; Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008).
Initially, the support for EU membership and further integration was high amongst Irish voters, with the 1972 Referendum on joining the EU, with 81.3% voting “Yes”. Ireland’s early experiences with EU referendums were positive and helped generate its early reputation within the EU as being a constructive member of the community, or in other words, a “good European”. Despite this, sovereignty has always been an issue at the forefront of referendum campaigns. Being a smaller fish in the big bad EU pond has made Irish voters and interest groups nervous about the prospect of further integration infringing upon national sovereignty.
These concerns lead to a Supreme Court case in 1987 on the Single European Act (SEA), where it was ruled that any further treaties on European integration had to be passed by referendum. At the time, there was a general consensus amongst Irish judicial and political circles that parliamentary approval was sufficient enough to ratify EU referendums, however, an Irish interest group challenged this, stating that the SEA went beyond what Irish voters agreed to in 1972.
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Since then, EU treaties can only be ratified by referendum in the Republic of Ireland. As the relationship between the Irish and the EU evolved, a conflict emerged between this concern over integration and Ireland’s obligations arising from being a net beneficiary of EU funding. While Maastricht (the treaty laying the foundations for the Euro) and Amsterdam were passed with relative ease, the conflict became more apparent with the Nice and Lisbon treaties.
For years, Irish politicians were aware of the realities of their relationship with Brussels; both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Ireland’s two major political parties, have constantly sided with pro-integration campaigns, often using the donor-recipient approach; Irish voters were constantly reminded that funding from Brussels helped provide the foundations of the economic boom the country experienced during the 1990s. This argument was essentially built on the idea that Ireland was obligated to pass referendums as there remained a financial incentive, and while this may have worked for the first two decades of EU membership, as the Irish economy slowed down, voters became more weary of the prospect of further integration.
Irish voters initially vetoed both the Nice and Lisbon treaties with the first Nice referendum producing a 54% “No” vote and the first Lisbon referendum was defeated by a 53.3% “No” vote. For both treaties, the Irish government held a second referendum; Irish political elites found themselves under pressure from Brussels to produce a desired result. Eventually, the EU got the result it wanted and both treaties were ratified, but it exposed the farcical nature of EU referendums in Ireland.
So can Irish voters veto the new treaty? While Nice and Lisbon may have indicated the willingness of Irish governments to repeat referendums until the desired result is produced, last week the Irish Government announced that the next referendum will be a once off; if a “No” result is produced, there will not be a second referendum.Unlike previous treaties, the fiscal compact does not require unanimity but if Ireland vetoes the treaty, it will lose access to a second bailout fund.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are obligated to ensure that the fiscal compact passes, as without it, Ireland will lose a future financial lifeline. So why has the government announced that there will not be any repeat referendums? It could be confidence stemming from recent opinion polls which suggest that Irish voters will pass the referendum, with one poll suggesting a 44% “Yes” vote, 26% would oppose the treaty and another 26% were yet to decide.
A date has not yet been set, and a lot can happen in a few months, but the fact remains that there is a dangling carrot and that is access to a second bailout fund. But as the Irish media has argued, voters may not see the bailout fund reason enough to vote “Yes”; the Irish Independent put forward this argument:
Irish voters more than most have reason to support restraints on the behaviour of their leaders. Twice in 40 years, venal politicians and incompetent or cowardly officials have brought the country to bankruptcy.
There is little sign that things have changed sufficiently to make one think it could not happen again. Although the details are open to criticism, the general terms of the fiscal compact are what any responsible government should do.
Outside surveillance is a loss of sovereignty – but largely of the sovereign right to be irresponsible.
Certainly food for thought for both voters and politicians alike.