What explains the difference of positions of the Irish government and the Irish electorate?

Author: Levan Makhashvili,  MA student at Maastricht University

Date: July, 2009

In recent years there have been many significant changes in the world politics. One of the most outstanding events was a further step towards “ever closer union” (Dinan 2005) on the European continent. The signature of the Lisbon Treaty would have been a huge success in Europe’s history. But the Irish rejection by referendum in June 2008 was a shock for everybody. This fact initiated a lot of discussions, mostly of political character. The Irish case was thought to be an interesting issue for theoreticians as well, but even after one year later very few academic research is done in the area. This paper will contribute in the development of further researches in this field.

In my paper I will discuss Liberal Intergovernmentalism (LI), particularly its assumption about national preferences formation, which states that state’s national interests are formulated domestically and is a result of a competition among the most influencial societal groups, particularly, political and economic elites. It is clear from the Irish case that these elites did not represent the people. Thus, I will try to find out why were the positions different, what were the incentives for the electorate to reject the Treaty and why the Irish government favoured it.

The first part of my paper will be devoted to the Liberal Intergovernmentlist theory and its main postulates. In the second part I will talk about the Lisbon Treaty, its goals and member states’ attitudes towards the Treaty. Finally, I will analyze the Irish case and answer my thesis question.

The used methodology is mainly based on the analysıs of the books and the academic essays of theoreticians, electronic media resources, statistics. Thus, I am using a content analysis, which is a qualitative method in positivist researches.

“Preferences and Power in the European community: A Liberal Intergovernmentalist Approach” is a classical academic paper by Moravcsik (1993a) that gave birth to LI. The author argues that European integration can be explained not only by state-centric theories – which state that countries define their own interests and achieve them internationally and domestic level is ignored – but also by certain liberal theories, particularly, a liberal theory of national preferences formation. The latter focuses on domestic process and state-society relations. According to the theory, the national interests formation is usually a duty of senior politicians, who “are embedded in domestic and transnational civil society, which decisively constrains their identities and purposes” (Moravcsik 1992b in Moravcsik 1993a, p. 271). On the other hand, there is a permanent conflict and cooperation

among these societal groups and the national interests are seriously influenced by the winners. Moravcsik also assumes that these interests may vary in response to the changes in influential groups.

The next step of the process has already an intergovernmentalist character and stands far from liberal theories. As Moravcsik argues, national governments pursue their interests during international negotiations and try to gain as much as possible. This level is known as “interstate bargaining” (Moravcsik 1993a, p. 283).
Morvacsik also discusses the role of the supranational institutions. As he states (1993a), EC institutions are the tools of the national governments for achieving particular goals (p. 291).

As we see, Moravcsik offered us a mixture of theories of preferences, bargaining and regimes and disperse it in two-stage approach of European integration.

For further understanding, I will briefly examine the Lisbon treaty as well. The Treaty is an agreement among the leaders of the EU member states which was signed on 13 December, 2007, although it has not been ratified in all the states yet. The main goal of the Treaty was to improve the functioning the European Union by amending the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC). The novelties would include the changes in voting system in the Council of the Ministers (the Council), increased participation of the European Parliament (EP) in decision-making process, establishing single pillar system by emerging the current three pillars (European Community, Common Foreign and Security Policy, Justice and Home Affairs). The Charter of Fundamental Rights would also become legally binding under the Lisbon Treaty. According to the Treaty Preamble, it is also striving for the completion of “the process started by the Treaty of Amsterdam [1997] and by the treaty of Nice [2001] with a view to enhancing the ffeciency and democratic legitimacy of the [European] Union and to improving the coherence of its action” (Treaty Preamble).

During ratification process, member states’s positions towards the Treaty appeared to be controversial. The president of Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus refused to sign the Treaty until the final ratification in Ireland. He is against the Treaty stating that it undermines the sovereignty of the Republic. After Constitutional Court’s and both Houses’ approval, he again tried to hamper the process and said to “wait for the outcome of the second Irish referendum . . . to avoid a potentially unnecessary costly political battle” (euobserver.com 2008). The same happened in Poland. The president Lech Kaczynski refused to finish the ratification process until the final Irish results.

Another problematic country is Germany. The president Peter Gauweiler has faced a strong opposition inside the country. Although he had parliamentarian approval, he could not sign it because the case was sent to the Consitutional Court. But on June 30, 2009 the Court declared that the Lisbon Treaty was compatible with the German Consitution (Federal Consitutional Court 2009) alongside with “a new law which would have to be passed in Berlin stipulating a far greater role for the federal parliament and upper legislative chamber in Brussels decision-making” (Spiegel Online July 8, 2009).

The final case is Ireland, which is the main focus of this paper. Ireland was the only EU member state which held a referendum for its ratification. The government was obliged to hold it because it is a mandatory legal procedure under the Irish Consitution since the 1987 Irish Supreme Court decision. The interesting fact is that all the political parties including oppositioners favoured the Treaty. Only “Sinn Fein” was against it (RTE News January 22, 2008). This party was supported mostly by lobby group “Libertas” (BBC News 13 June 2008). Despite the signing the Treaty by the Irish Prime minister on December 13, 2007, parliamentarian approval and a vast and strong support from the political and economic elites, the Irish population rejected the Treaty in June 2008 by 53,4%.

As we see, the Irish case shows that positions of the Irish government and population differ from each other. This is a puzzle that needs explanation. Hereafter, I will try to find out the reasons of the divergence of the positions.
In June 2008, a week after the referendum, Eurobarometer (June 18, 2008) published a report seeking to explain the electorate’s behaviour – rejection. The reasons were diverse – starting from a lack of information about the Treaty finishing with “a way of protesting against the government’s policies” (p. 7). I paid particular attention to these two reasons because, to my mind, they both played very important role in the process. Let us discuss both in details.

According to another findings by Millward Brown IMS (September 10, 2008), the main reason cited for voting No was “lack of knowledge/information/understanding” at 42% (Para. Executive Summery). As one of the Irish said, “they just launched something that nobody could understand” (Para. Reasons for NO). “Yes” and “No” voters claimed that the provided information about the Treaty was vague. Indeed, as the report states, the Referendum Commission booklet and the Department of Foreign Affairs’ own booklet were complicated for the majority of the electorate. “Yes” campaign posters were disliked, while “NO” campaign posters were “misleading and overly-dramatic“ (Para. Reasons for NO) by some group participants. “I said I’d have a go at [The Referendum Commission Booklet] to get more knowledge but being honest, I said oh my God, that’s too complicated”, mentioned a female Irish (Para. Reasons for NO). One very important point in the report is that many YES voters favoured the Treaty because of their positive attitude towards the Irish government. “I basically went, well I voted this Government in, I trusted them to vote them in, I trust them to make the decisions for me”, said another Irish (Para. Reasons for YES). If we take into considaration a fact that, because of an economic decline and some other problems in Ireland before the referendum, the Irish population did not favour the government, we may conclude that some YES voters just voted for NO because of their dislike of the government. Indeed, 4% of the population behaved so as a way of protest against the government’s policies (Eurobarometer 2008, p. 8).

In the report, we can also find some other reasons, such as unconvincing campaign of “YES” group, question of the Irish neutrality and so on. The former, as a process, is tighly connected to the lack of information. The government actually could not manage to provide its population with enough information. That is why we should seek the reason here. Was there any significant occasion that hampered the government’s support to the Treaty? Actually, there was. Just about one month before the referendum the Irish Prime minister was changed. The new government – with Brian Cowen in its head – had one month to persuade the electorate in the value of the Lisbon Treaty. Here came another problem: the Irish did not like the previous government and it would take some time to determine the relations between the government and the population, to make the positions and priorities completely clear. Of course, one month could not be enough for this process. That is why, “NO” group managed to have more persuasive campaign against the “YES” group, supported by the transitioning and still a bit disorganized government. Thus, transition can be proclaimed to be the main reason of the bad “YES” campaign, hence, of the lack of information and, consequently, of the Irish rejection.

On the other hand, there was a strong support of the Irish government from the Irish political and economic elites – political parties, trade unions, business organisations and other interest groups. This means that LI’s predictions are correct while claiming that government’s position is usually supported by the most influencial interest groups. Thus, LI is applicable to this situation. The problem is in referendum. This kind of voting is no longer a process of interaction and competition among influencial groups. This time electorate decides everything. That is what happened in Ireland. The final decision was done by referendum, where population, because of lack of information and some other reasons, rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

So, we can conclude, that the Irish government’s position reflected the one of the political and economic elites. However, the Irish population thought differently. The main reason in the latter case, as we have examined, was a lack of information about the Lisbon Treaty. On the other hand, the Irish government, which was in transition at that time, could not manage to have an appropriate campaign for the Treaty.

List of References

BBC News, “Ireland rejects EU reform Treaty”, June 13, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7453560.stm.

Dinan, D. (2004). Europe Recast: A History of European Union. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.

Eurobarometer, Post-referendum survey in Ireland, June 18, 2005.

Eurobserver, “The thorny question of the EU treaty and the Czech Republic”, August 5, 2008. Retrieved on October 30, 2008, http://euobserver.com/7/26579.

Federal Constitutional Court, Act Approving the Treaty of Lisbon compatible with the Basic Law, June 30, 2009.

Millward Brown IMS, Post Lisbon Treaty Referendum Research Findings, September 2008.

Moravcsik, A. (1993a). Preferences and Power in the European Community: A Liberal Intergovernmentalist Approach. In M. Eilstrup-Sangiovanni (Ed.), Debates On European Integration (pp. 264-303). Palgrave Macmillan.

RTÉ News, “FG calls on public to back Lisbon Treaty”, January 22, 2008, http://www.rte.ie/news/2008/0122/eu.html.

Spiegel Online, “Ireland to hold second EU referendum”, July 8, 2009, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,635074,00.html

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