It’s official: the turkey has defeated the treaty. I heard the news right before I boarded a plane to Zurich to attend my brother’s high school graduation tomorrow. I’m currently flying above the English channel, and as we cross over the French coastline and enter airspace over the continent, I can’t help but stare down at the land and think: what is to become of Europe?
Already this morning when it was revealed that turnout had been low, people in Brussels were fearing the worst. The conventional logic went that if there was a high turnout there would be a yes result, and a low turnout would mean a no. By tea time it was clear: Ireland has rejected the Lisbon Treaty. The news has thrown Brussels into a virtual panic. The RSS feeds on my google desktop toolbar, which are set to monitor various Euroblogs and feeds, started going nuts. The Euro came crashing down as soon as the news broke, falling to its lowest level in a month against the dollar almost instantly upon the news. Various government heads throughout Europe were rushing out with statements about what this means. Of course at the moment, nobody seems to know for sure. All that is known now, as Reuters’ Peter Graff writes, is that it looks like “a country with fewer than one percent of the EU’s 490 million population has destroyed a treaty painstakingly negotiated over years by leaders of all 27 member states.”
By all indications from exit polling, the Irish voted no because they didn’t know what the treaty was. As the BBC’s Mark Mardell notes in his blog today, most of the people he spoke with who said they voted no (as well as many who said they voted yes) freely admitted they knew nothing about what was in the treaty. In fact many people said the reason they voted no was because they didn’t know what the treaty was. This points to two things:
1) The Irish government - distracted by the start of a new prime minister after the previous one was recently forced to resign amidst scandal - did an inadequate job in educating the population about the treaty
2) The EU has become a magnet for people’s discontents, and people are attaching whatever grievances they have generally with society to it.
The schmorgasboard of disconnected groups that campaigned for a no vote is representative of the latter. The groups campaigned against the treat for all sorts of reasons, few of which had anything to do with the treaty itself. There were environmental activists, communists, anti-abortion activists, fervent Catholics, IRA members, farmers, disgruntled Eurovision fans and even Turkeys (Dustin the Turkey, who was Ireland’s Eurovision entry this year that mocked the contest, was eliminated in the first round and was booed off the stage, campaigned against the treaty). What was most bizarre was that the aims of many of these groups contradicted each other. But they had one overriding commonality: they saw the EU as the manifestation of whatever it is that they hate.
At the same time, the treaty’s ratification was backed by virtually every farmers group, business and union as well as by every major political party. But perhaps this solid establishment support only made these people more suspicious of the treaty.
So what happens now? This is far from certain. At the minimum, the treaty will not come into force as planned on January 1, 2009, meaning that the EU Commission, which is mandated to have less seats than there are now current members, will become an unworkable body. A lack of confidence in Europe may drive down the value of the Euro, ending its steady ascent against the dollar and pound. The EU will be weakened internationally, particularly in its dealings with Russia and Iran, as it is stuck in limbo with dysfunctional foreign policy, defence institutions and presidency. At the minimum, this situation will exist until something can be worked out. But if nothing else can be worked out this current untenable situation would exist with no end in sight.
The leaders of Britain, Germany and France quickly announced after the news that they would continue their path toward ratification and would not now change course and put the treaty up for referendum in their own countries. Eurosceptics in the UK will likely step up their demands for a British referendum, but it is unlikely Gordon Brown will relent on this issue. Already accused of being a ditherer, a reversal on the referendum issue now would make him a laughing stock. So it looks like all of the other 26 states in the EU will have ratified the treaty by the end of the year. But that won’t do any good, as it requires ratification by all member states.
EU leaders will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels next week to assess the situation and to ask Ireland how it intends to proceed. Ireland’s new prime minister Brian Cowen had previously ruled out putting the same treaty to another vote like it did six years ago when Ireland first voted down the Nice treaty. He could go to Brussels and ask for special opt-outs for Ireland, but that would be a bit tricky since the ‘no’ campaign didn’t seem to have any specific objections. If it’s not clear what the Irish didn’t like about the treaty (to the government or to the voters), how is Cowen to know what to change in order to placate them?
There will be a lot of very angry and upset people in Brussels today, particularly aggravated by the fact that Ireland has benefited enormously from being part of the EU and this vote, at the very least, will pretty ungrateful. But some Euro loggers are already urging some calm. John Worth pleaded in his blog today for people to show some calm - saying that comments like that of Bernard Koucher - who said ** - were not going to be helpful, even though that is what most everyone in Brussels is probably thinking. Jon rgues that the EU needs to quickly figure out what it was the Irish people were voting against, and offer them a new vote that is more clear and addresses their needs. I actually quite like Jon’s suggestion that the options need to be changed to something that people can more easily understand:
-Do you want Ireland to be part of the EU under the Treaty of Nice (with a brief explanation of what this means)?
-Do you want Ireland to be part of the EU under the Treaty of Lisbon (with an explanation of what that would mean)?
-Do you want Ireland to leave the EU?
This would give people a clearer idea of the choice they are actually being asked to make.
One thing is certain, 2009 is not going to be a fun year in Brussels. It’s going to be a chaotic, unworkable mess. It is a real concern at this point that if the EU is not able to fix its very serious structural problems in one form or another quickly, it risks completely disintegrating in a matter of years. In fact, Friday the 13th of June could be remembered as the day that destroyed the EU, the first death knell for an ambitious project that was just never able to get off the ground. Without legitimacy with the public, it is hard to see how the union is going to overcome its current unworkability. But when Europeans aren’t enthused and aren’t paying attention, how do you fix that public perception problem?
These are challenging times for Europe indeed.