Lisbon & Democracy

There is no crisis - except in the minds of those who like crises, and in the self-importance of the EU inner elite that does not like being rebuffed – Vincent Brown

I did not vote in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty for the simple reason that I am not yet on the electoral registrar. Had I been able to cast a vote it would have gone to the No camp. That decision would have been the result of instinct shading ignorance. I was woefully, perhaps blissfully, unaware of the issues and did not follow the debates closely. My abiding interest in European events this year has been focussed on Vienna and Geneva rather than Lisbon. The Euro 2008 soccer tournament while ultimately less important than the political future of Europe is immeasurably more exciting. Football players using their feet to fool opponents seems more palatable than politicians using their tongues for the same end.

One of the very few exchanges I did listen to was between Eoin O Broin of the No campaign and some forgettable character from the Yes camp. It wasn’t because I both know and like O Broin that I felt enamoured to his argument. It was simply that at a surface level his case made more sense. Right or wrong he explained the issues more clearly than his opponent. He gave out better information whereas in response to his position there were vague assurances rather than solid affirmations. All this amounted to at least one good reason to vote no: there was plenty of information but a dearth of decipherable content made available to the public.

The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by that part of the Irish electorate not ruled by the British was a significant slap in the face for both the big powers of Europe and the Dublin political leadership. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth but as Berthold Brecht once famously said, the people have voted, the bastards. Had the decision been taken by the political class from deep within its Dail lair it would have been totally out of sync with democratic sentiment on the ground. The referendum was the way to go. But as an instrument of democratisation are referenda valued only instrumentally rather than normatively?

Being more direct than representative, were they used to consider things like immigration many of those strongly supportive of the concept would swiftly find fault with referenda as a means to deal with these issues. Already indications are beginning to emerge that many who voted No also favour a tightening up of immigration legislation making it more difficult for people from abroad to come to Ireland and make a better life for themselves and their families. Pat Leahy, the political editor of the Sunday Business Post having reviewed a survey claimed that ‘voters who are more concerned about immigration were more likely to vote against the treaty.’

Nor are the champions of the ability of people to make an intelligent choice in the Lisbon case as vocal in their praise of the democratic decision to reject a woman’s right to choose. And if it is true that many voted against Lisbon on the grounds that they feared an extension of women’s rights over their own bodies the liberationist dimension of the referendum result is called into question. What is being depicted as Ireland asserting its freedom may in fact be a mask to conceal an impulse to chain rather than unshackle. All of it produced by a referendum.

This is one of the problems with referenda or rather with those who champion them the loudest. The people are right when they agree with us but when they don’t, well they can back to being the bastards that they are for having done something as audacious as voting.

I have not changed my mind about the Irish electorate having rejected the Lisbon Treaty nor has my endorsement of the outcome attenuated. But I would be considerably happier had the vote been the strong pulse of a progressive tendency within Irish society rather than the deep vein fibrillation it is coming to resemble.

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