Thursday

20th Feb 2020

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.

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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.

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