Try, try again.  Or so it seems with European treaties (and Ireland).  Late last week EU leaders agreed on concessions to Ireland that will likely pave the way for a second Lisbon treaty referendum in the country.  The editors of the Times took particular issue with the development, stating that the EU has a problem “understanding democracy.” 

Their thoughts on Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s pledge to hold a second referendum:

Mr. Cowen could have disgraced himself more thoroughly by ignoring Ireland’s first referendum on the Lisbon treaty altogether.  But his decision to heed European blandishments rather than his own citizens’ ballots still shows, as the leader of the Irish “no” campaign has said, contempt for the democratic process.  It is also a grave and unnecessary indictment of the EU’s current priorities, which in more outward-looking eras have unquestionably been a force for good.  If a second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty does take place, it deserves to be resoundingly rejected once again.


A committee of Irish MPs has since decided that a second referendum would be legal.  But the first was legal, too, and it does not take a committee to point out that Mr. Cowen and the “yes” campaign have already mocked their Constitution and insulted Ireland’s voters by holding a perfectly legitimate and transparent referendum and refusing to abide by its result.

Dick Roche, the Irish European Affairs Minister, has claimed that “from a constitutional point of view there’s no other choice than a second referendum.”  He could hardly be more wrong.  The obvious choice of respecting the voters’ first verdict is difficult but right.

If Lisbon is not ratified by Irish voters, pressure would then be taken off the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic, who have yet to approve the treaty as well.

Several reasons were behind the treaty’s defeat last June.  The country’s loss of its right to nominate a commissioner to the European Commission was a major obstacle.  Other deal-breaking issues included taxation rights, preservation of Irish neutrality, and abortion laws.  Deutsche Welle reports on the agreements reached this weekend:

Part of the original treaty was designed to reduce the European Commission’s size to two-thirds of the currently 27 commissioners from 2014.  But the draft statement says EU leaders agreed on keeping a rule allowing each member state to nominate a member of the commission.


The draft also includes a declaration designed to address a number of additional concerns expressed by the Irish in their ‘no’ vote.  These include guarantees that Ireland’s traditional policy of neutrality would be maintained and that the Lisbon Treaty does not impinge on Ireland’s right to set tax levels.  Irish voters were also concerned the treaty would contravene the country’s constitution on issues relating to the right to life, education, and family.

Proponents of reducing the size of the Commission, a major reform component of the treaty, argue that doing so will streamline decision-making in a presently over-bureaucratic EU.  Yet, by scrapping this entire provision, EU leaders have also scrapped one of the main justifications for drafting the treaty in the first place.  The Times:

It is possible, though not obvious, that the Lisbon treaty’s proposed shrinking of the EU’s executive might have eased the path to consensus on apparently intractable issues such as climate change mitigation and coordinated fiscal rescue packages.

But Ireland’s voters decided that the price in sovereignty and influence was too high.  They worried that streamlining in principle would mean bulldozing in practice, especially on tax and social policies, and they did not relish losing a commissioner.  Brussels’ response to Dublin’s lobbying since the June vote has been dramatic: José Manuel Barroso, the Commission’s President, and Nicolas Sarkozy, current President of the European Council, have reversed themselves on the treaty’s central proposal and promised every member state its own commissioner after all.

So, does dropping plans to reduce the number of commissioners mean that a reduction is not actually needed?  How important is this component of the treaty?

Perhaps the shift will not be as radical as it initially seems.  The UK and Poland have already opted out of various Lisbon treaty clauses.  Furthermore, yesterday’s Irish Times notes that Ireland (or any other country for that matter) could lose its right to nominate a commissioner even if the Lisbon treaty is rejected, leaving the Nice rules in effect:

The major change arising from [the EU leaders’ agreements] is that this State can maintain a commissioner if the treaty is ratified, as can all others.  They were willing to make this concession in return for the Government’s willingness to hold another referendum, even though it upsets the institutional balance and political compromises upon which Lisbon is based.  Voters will face a stark choice between continuing to have a commissioner if the referendum is carried and almost certainly losing one if it is rejected and the Nice Treaty rules apply.  That would certainly diminish Ireland’s influence at the heart of the EU, quite aside from the political and economic marginalization which would surely follow a second No when the other 26 member states are determined to go ahead with the treaty.

European institutional reform is certainly needed (and opposition to it appears to be growing), but the Times appropriately points out that the EU’s refusal to accept the rejection of the Lisbon treaty is alarming: “Europe’s – and Mr. Cowen’s – impatience with Ireland’s voters have revealed a basic misunderstanding of democracy next to which the EU’s other problems pale.  Europe can and must thrive as a coalition of the willing.”

Related Posts:

Peter Cassata is an assistant editor with the Atlantic Council.