Lisbon Treaty: The Campaigns

At midday here in Ireland, the consensus was that the vote on the Treaty of Lisbon is too close to call. I find this remarkable, given that every political party holding seats in the Dáil (except Sinn Féin) endorsed the treaty. The major Irish political parties have impressive networks of party loyalists on the ground. Their networks seem more oriented toward mass mobilization than the US’s Democratic and Republican parties. While the US’s parties are fund-raising machines, they struggle with voters’ apathy and fragmentation on particular policies. So I assumed that the parties would get out the vote. But the relatively high turnout rate for this referendum appears to tell against ratification, according to the results so far.

Let’s look at the campaigns for and against the Lisbon Treaty, as I saw and heard them.

I paid careful attention to some major media outlets during the campaigns — mostly newspapers and radio (and of course, the ubiquitous signs). This is my impression of the major campaigns, with a healthy bit of bias and on-the-fly analysis.


Both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns relied heavily on predictions of Ireland’s future. The “Yes” campaign said:

  • If Ireland ratifies the Treaty, then it will take its place among the decision-makers in the EU. Under the Treaty, the EU will be able to handle the new challenges it faces: ensuring economic progress, integrating eastern european states, and acting in the interests of justice and democracy in foreign affairs. There will be more jobs for the Irish, and more prosperity for all.
  • If Ireland does not ratify the Treaty, then it will lose its hard-won status in Europe. Ireland will be seen as a politically unstable state, and unreliable for international business. Finally, the major powers of the EU (predominantly France and Germany) will punish Ireland. Ireland will not successfully transition from the Celtic Tiger and it will be seen as a second-class country once again.


The dominant theme of the “No” campaign (which was mostly centre-right rather than progressive voices) predicted as follows:

  • If Ireland ratifies the Treaty, then it will cede its economic and political sovereignty to the EU. The EU is economically dominated by old western states which resent Ireland’s tax policy, and numerically dominated by eastern states which wish to eliminate competition to their own pro-corporate policies. Thus, the new majoritarian procedures will be used by this coalition to force Ireland to adopt corporate tax policies that will drive international corporations from Ireland. Finally, the EU will be led into foreign military conflicts by the interventionist tendencies of the old european powers. Ireland will lose its long-standing neutrality and be seen as a US-style state within an aggressive union.
  • If Ireland does not ratify the Treaty, then it will stand with the Dutch and French people and insist on a genuinely democratic EU. The powers-that-be will be forced to return to the drawing board and enact real, meaningful reforms, rather than the re-packaged EU Constitution that was rejected for good reasons. Ireland will be a progressive leader within Europe, taking a brave stand when it matters. Ireland will have dodged a blow, and in a matter of time, the Irish people will be hailed as a force for justice and democracy.

What do I think about the campaigns?

I have a mostly negative opinion about both dominant campaigns. For now, I’ll just talk about the way that the campaigns were conducted, rather than the substance of the positions. (As you might have reckoned by now, I don’t think there was much substance to their positions!)

Both campaigns were unpalatable to me in two ways. First, both sides concentrated almost entirely on arguments about the economic impact of the Lisbon Treaty. To me, that seems like arguing about banning partial-birth abortion in the US by discussing its impact on Medicare. The issue is the reform of the EU — major structural changes — and nobody wanted to talk about what that meant for the political atmosphere of the EU as a whole or for Ireland in particular. (For Irish readers — I’m leaving aside the simplistic slogan, “We’ll lose our councillor!”)

Second, both sides were myopically focused on present-day Irish interests. The debate started and ended with the question, “Is this a good deal for Irish citizens (in the short-term)?” Add the general restriction to economic issues (i.e. jobs) and you get, from my point of view, an incredibly artificial debate about a profoundly important issue!

I believe that the skepticism expressed by undecided Irish voters, and the suspicion articulated so frequently from so many different interests, is related to an implicit consensus about why the debate was artificial, a consensus that developed inexorably during the last six weeks. Simply put: most neutral observers came to believe that both sides were hiding something. Something big.

Many commentators asserted that both sides were hiding that they did not even understand the Treaty itself, which is over 100 pages long and written in impenetrable legalistic code. They concluded that both sides were acting on the orders of other powers: France and Germany, Austrian nationalists, corporate cronies, pinkos, whoever.

Others suspected that one of the two sides was hiding a poison pill of some kind: clauses within the Treaty that would have an effect nowhere near the expressed intent of the Treaty (as written in that cute little pamphlet).

I have no idea. I do know that the debate devolved into a finger-pointing kabuki that rivaled anything from American presidential politics. As the election date came closer, representatives from both sides would attend debates and begin with accusations of scare-mongering. Those accusations were accurate! But the default response would be, “Your accusations are lowering the level of debate.”

“No, you, sir, are lowering the level of debate.” And so on — it didn’t matter who took the floor first, almost every debate would take this path. And one-on-one interviews are simply slow-motion debates in this age of PR tactics and TV soundbites.

It seems to me that nobody talked about the Treaty itself. So I end my tune, again, on the same note: I don’t know what the Lisbon Treaty is, and nobody told me, even when I asked nicely.

The counting is still going on, just a mile from my place. I’ll write again when there are firm results. You can look forward to my chart-topping lament: “Ballad for an Undecided Irish Voter”

3 Comments to “Lisbon Treaty: The Campaigns”

  1. Dave said...
    16 June 2008

    Will- Thank you for this fine summary of the Lisbon Treaty and the process of the referendum in Ireland. I’m glad to know that it’s not just me who has no idea how the Lisbon Treaty works and why it’s a good idea. I think that’s one of the great things about the US Constitution – 4 page of 7 articles. When you try to codify every possible situation and scenario, it gets way too complicated.

  2. Will said...
    20 June 2008

    I agree with your fundamental point about the US Constitution, especially since many of the most legalistic provisions were the biggest mistakes. (Can you say “Three-Fifths Rule?”)

    But it’s nowhere near that easy, even in the US. Most theorists hold that the “real” constitution of the US is the 4-page text PLUS all the major rulings of the US Supreme Court. And that’s a massive document. Think about the Interstate Commerce Clause — it’s meaningless without the S.Court cases that invested so much power through it.

    And, just one more point — one of the largest factors in the “No” vote was the inability of anyone to predict, plausibly, how the EU would function under the Lisbon Treaty rules. The 4-page US Constitution fares very poorly on this score. Imagine if the Irish people voted on a Lisbon Treaty that consisted of just that little pamphlet that you read!

  3. Dave said...
    20 June 2008

    That’s a good point. I think that part of the problem for the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty is the stage of life that most of the countries in Europe are in. For the US, When we won the revolutionary war, all we knew was that we didn’t want Parliment and King George III telling us what to do. So we tried the Articles of Confederation, that didn’t work, threw it out, and implemented the Constitution. The 13 colonies were like kids getting out of college and getting married. You don’t know what life is like, so you get hitched and make a go of it. Neither side has ever been on their own, so you develop your habits together over time. When older people get married, like the European countries in the EU, it’s more difficult. Each side is set in their ways, and has their own spending habits, furniture, china, and bedtime. It’s hard to figure out which couch to keep and which dinner set you like better. Older people have an emotional attachment to these things that young people don’t have. It’s not impossible to make it work, things are just harder to iron out, especially the loss of control over decision making.

    And really, didn’t the Irish people just vote on the Lisbon Treaty that was the little pamplet? How many actually read the document?