Rhein on Energy and Climate

Avoid Plebiscites

On June 12, Irish voters will pronounce themselves on the Lisbon Treaty. It will be the 6th time since 1972 that the Irish electorate is called upon to give its assent to changes of the EU Treaties. Ireland is the only EU member state to indulge in an extensive use of referenda, which follows from a ruling of its Supreme Court in 1986 that the Single European Act requires the assent by the Irish people. Since then every Irish government has always called a referendum before ratifying EU treaty changes.

A referendum on complex legal EU issues is a risky political undertaking. We have seen it in 2005 when the French and Dutch electorates voted against the “Constitution”, the predecessor of the Lisbon Treaty. It is impossible for a normal citizen to understand the issues at stake, let alone the legal texts.

Invariably, politicians, media or pressure groups try to take the government hostage for obtaining concessions on matters that are only vaguely related to the constitutional matters at stake. A negative outcome of a referendum need not imply a rejection of the treaty text. It may rather express a general frustration with the government or specific policy concerns. The ongoing Irish debate shows this very clearly.

The outcome of the Irish referendum is of great concern to all EU governments. If the Irish vote NO, the EU will be back to “square one”, i.e. to the Nice Treaty, which everybody agrees is not the most efficient constitutional instrument to govern a Union with soon 28 member countries.

How to overcome a possible negative vote in Ireland?

The Irish government will have to repeat the referendum, as it has done in 2001/02, possibly after agreeing with the 26 member countries on an “interpretative” protocol concerning the sensitive issues like taxation that may have led to the Irish NO. This may take up to two years.

In the meantime, the EU might go ahead with at least two reforms of essentially administrative nature, i.e. the appointments of the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, both key to a more effective management of the EU, without affecting the competences of member states.

Even if this were acceptable to all member states, the Union will be thrown into another profound crisis.

The 12th June 2008 will be a crucial date for the medium term future of the European Union.Whatever the outcome, it would be good for the Irish government and the Supreme Court to consult on how to ratify future EU treaty changes without having to organise risky referenda.

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