28 June 2008

And the World did not end...

It is only two weeks now that the people of Ireland delivered a crushing defeat to the government, which was - unusually - allied with the two largest opposition parties. I am talking of course of the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which was rejected by the Irish people with a margin of more than 100,000 votes.

Despite a massive campaign, on which millions were spent, the odd coalition of Fianna Fail, Green Party and Progressive Democrats (all three in government) and Fine Gael and the Labour Party could not persuade a majority of Irish voters to trust them. The strong support from industrialists, employers organisations and - rather late in the campaign - the Irish Farmers' Association did not change the matter either.

A clear majority of Ireland's people chose to believe Sinn Fein (the only parliamentary party in the NO camp), the Workers' Party, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party and the 'People before Profit' movement on the political Left, together with the euro-skeptic think tank Libertas on the Right and a large number of independent individuals in the middle and rejected the Lisbon Treaty as the flawed document that it is.

Major figures in the YES campaign, led by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, issued all sorts of threats and warnings before the referendum, giving the impression that a NO vote would mean the end of Ireland's EU membership, a collapse of our economy and perhaps even the prospect of war.

Anyone with even a bit of common sense could see that this was nothing but scaremongering and hogwash, a feeble attempt by established politicians to bully the electorate into submission. Well, it did not work, and I am glad about that. Ireland has shown to Europe and the world that true democracy is still at home on the Emerald Island.

A week after his defeat our new Taoiseach had to go to Brussels and explain the situation to his EU colleagues. He did so quite eloquent, and despite some verbal sniping from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a few more minor politicians, nothing has happened. Not to Ireland and not to the EU. After a whole day of negotiations the 27 heads of government decided to postpone the matter until after their summer holidays.

So the world did not end after all, the EU is still the world's strongest political alliance, and the Republic of Ireland is still a full and equal member of it. Maybe even more equal now than we would have been in case of an acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty. Once again the people on this island, who in the past suffered the yoke of colonisation and foreign government for 750 years, have shown that they cannot be ignored or pushed aside; not by Europe and certainly not by our own politicians.

Meanwhile, only a fortnight after the vote, hardly anyone talks about the referendum anymore. The matter is dead, as is the Lisbon Treaty. What comes next is anyone's guess and no-one can be sure, not even the political leaders of Europe's countries.

Much will depend on the attitude of France, which takes over the rotating EU presidency from Slovenia on Tuesday. It is unlikely that Nicolas Sarkozy can come up with a solution that pleases everyone, and many analysts expect that new ways will not be found before January 2009. This might not be so bad for Ireland, as by then the rather euro-skeptic Czech Republic will be in the chair of the EU. Negotiations between 27 countries always take their time, and I do not expect a return of the Lisbon Treaty - perhaps in disguise or under another name - before the European elections of next summer. The risk to get a second rejection is too great for our politicians, and a referendum too close to the elections would also influence people's choice whom to send to the European Parliament. In this regard only one thing is certain: Thanks to the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty Ireland will still elect 13 MEPs (plus two from the North) to the European Parliament. Had the treaty been passed, there would only be 12. And for a small country like Ireland such numbers - even though small as well - do matter a lot.

The Emerald Islander

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