Saturday

25th Jun 2022

Opinion

Irish referendum: anger, fear and some hope

  • 'The European Union is doomed to become the world's first super-democracy: direct, transnational and digital' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

At the outset there was a clear choice for the Irish electorate, when they went to the polls last Thursday for the 9th time on a European issue since 1973. „Yes to Stability“ or „No to Austerity“. And they delivered a clear result: 60.3 percent said 'Yes“, 39.7 percent 'No'.

The turnout hovered just over the majority of the 3 million voters, at 51 percent. As the voting issue was designed as a amendment to the Irish Constitution, the president will now have to authorize the ratification of the European Fiscal Treaty.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Despite the mainly green (yes-leaning) referendum map – just five out of 43 constituencies voted 'No' – this popular vote has revealed profound divisions within Ireland, based on social indicators.

While mostly rural-agrarian and middle-class areas approved the amendment, working class constituencies across the country clearly offered a no-vote, with some neighbourhoods in Dublin West strongly rejecting (up to 90%) the Fiscal Treaty. Such social cleavages are new for Ireland and indicates that the current crisis in Europe is a big challenge even to strong communities like the Irish one.

But this popular vote on the Fiscal Treaty also offers interesting insights into the emotional state of the voters. The No-campaign was based on anger about the consequences of the crisis while the Yes-campaign addressed the fears of many citizens regarding future uncertainties. And as the result made clear, the fear-argument was stronger than the anger-one. A lot of Irish people have high mortgages in euro, which are linked to relatively low interest rates. A possible departure from the common currency could mean even higher debts for many people.

Another element which contributed to the resounding Irish Yes-vote was the lack of so called "red herrings." These are issues unconnected with the ballot question, but which have in earlier EU votes – like the Nice- and Lisbon-Treaty – played decisive roles. In Ireland, such red herrings included neutrality and abortion issues. But these were hard to include in any campaign on the Fiscal Treaty. In a European perspective however, the 31 May referendum produced a rather typical decision, when it comes to votes on Europe in Europe.

This was the 53th nation-wide popular vote on a European Issue in the last 40 years. Such referendums – which sometimes also have been triggered by a citizens' initiative or by a top-down decision in a plebiscite – have been conducted in 26 different countries and have seen an average participation of over 60 percent.

While a few No-votes have made big headlines (and sometimes also lead to constructive developments), most often the voters have approved the agreements made by their elected leaders at the European level. These include accession treaties, treaty revisions or opt-out agreements to accommodate the specific requirement of a member state.

In sum, the referendum experience on EU issues has produced a positive outcome when it comes to strengthening the legitimacy of the integration process as well as the quantity of knowledge involved in popular decision-making processes.

There is a third way between the nationalistic retreats offered by leftist and rightist forces on one side, and the mainstream technocratic paths favoured by dominant political parties, most governments and many businesses. This third way is about making democracy - people power - work on all political levels.

There is no doubt that the politics of economy have to be transnationalised much more efficiently in order to balance the almost borderless market structures in the 21th century. There is no way back to the old, protective (and often even corrupt) national structures. But this does not mean that we have to give up the principles, procedures and practices of modern democracy. To the contrary!

Ireland shows that it is not sufficient to have frequent elections and referendums. The political system must be updated as well in order to become a well-functioning part of a bigger democratic Europe and the world.

After last week's referendum Ireland is now looking to a profound revision of its political system by establishing a Constitutional Convention to fix key problems in its political system. Other European countries are heading in a similar direction including Greece, Austria and Spain. In all cases the basic pillars of modern democracy, which are protection (rule of law), delegation (elections) and participation (direct democracy) are about to be strengthened comprehensively.

The work to make democracy more democratic does not end at the national borders. After the Irish vote, we need to examine how to bring EU citizens onto the political stage. The newly-introduced European Citizens Initiative is one such important step. The introduction of a pan European referendum process – for example on treaty changes – would be another one. The European Union is doomed to become the world's first super-democracy: direct, transnational and digital. This is not only feasible, but also necessary.

This means a more federal approach to the EU integration process, or as the early pro-democracy forces in the Austrian-Hungarian empire understood: "Federalism is the democratic answer to the Empire."

The writer is President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and Chairman of the Election Commission in the city of government of Falun/Sweden

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

How to enhance EU cybersecurity

The Hungarian hacking allowed Russian intelligence to read 'over the shoulder' of an EU member state for an extended period of time. The difficulty for the EU is that it's not one nation, but a combination of 27 cybersecurity policies.

Competing options for EU enlargement

We now have French president Emmanuel Macron's "European Political Community", European Council president Charles Michel's "European Geopolitical Community", and former Italian PM Enrico Letta's "European Confederation" — among others.

Column

China's support for Russia challenges Europe's Peace Order

China's soft support to Russia is deeply troubling for Europe. Here is the EU's biggest trading partner signalling that it is on the side of Russia, its aggression, and its challenge to the post-war international order.

Sturgeon's 2023 'referendum' gamble for Scotland

The independence campaign launch featured a new Scottish government report, comparing the UK's economic and social record with those of other European states — and arguing, unsurprisingly, that Scotland should be independent as a result.

News in Brief

  1. Belgian PM: Gas shortage requires joint response
  2. Bulgarian MPs set conditions for lifting enlargement veto
  3. Latvia: We need a brigade-size Nato force to 'feel safe'
  4. Deal reached on controversial energy treaty reform
  5. EU carbon emissions from energy up 6% in 2021
  6. Germany step closer to gas rationing
  7. Albania: EU 'disgrace' at lack of enlargement progress
  8. 'Serious blow' to EU credibility over North Macedonia

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  2. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  4. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBHow price increases affect construction workers
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic think tank examines influence of tech giants

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us