Ireland: Lisbon Treaty rejected – A harbinger of change!

Sharp collapse of economic growth and oncoming recession

“ARE WE out of our minds” was the headline in The Irish Times editorial a week before the Lisbon referendum, as it reported on the first poll that put the no vote ahead. This gives a flavour of the shock and panic that gripped the establishment in the last week of the campaign. Notwithstanding the fear they tried to spread about the consequences of a no vote, the clear majority still went into the polling stations and gave a firm no.

The result was the second significant event in two months that clearly signals that we are in a new political period. The first was Bertie Ahern [former Irish prime minister] being forced to resign. This was supposed to ease the passage of the Lisbon Treaty! The Lisbon defeat is much more serious for the establishment than the defeat of the first Nice referendum in 2001. It is particular difficult as the Southern economy is in a rapid decline hurtling towards recession.

The post referendum debate over why people voted no is nearly as intense as the referendum itself. Just as they lied about the Lisbon Treaty, so too the establishment must try and obscure why there was a no vote!

Mistrust of the EU

A growing mistrust of the EU, the direction it is going in and the policies it is pursuing were vital reasons behind the no vote. It is these anti-working class policies that contributed to the Lisbon defeat that the EU leaders must pursue if their capitalist companies are to “compete” on the world markets! And the crazy logic of international capitalism also means that they must try to fashion a powerful military force for the EU to rival the US and China.

The post referendum Eurobarometer poll indicated that while a majority of manual workers didn’t vote, of those that did 74% voted no. This poll broke down those who voted in the referendum by various gender and social and economic groups. Fifty six percent of women voted no; 65% of those aged 18 – 24 voted no. In sharp contrast to the insulting attempt of some in the media to portray no voters as uneducated, 72% of students opted to vote no.

This poll also showed that 51% of voters who were employees voted no. The voting on the Lisbon Treaty united a majority of working class people behind the no campaign. However, 58% of professionals or 60% self-employed who voted and 66% of senior managers voted yes!

The class division in the vote is most graphically illustrated in the cites. Just to give one example, but it could be repeated in different cities – in Dublin West in the more middle class and professional areas of Castleknock, the yes vote averaged 67% to 71%. In Hartstown, which is a working class area, where for example the overwhelming majority own their own homes, the no vote was 70.8%. In Blakestown, which is working class with a higher portion of social housing, of those who voted, 83.4% voted no!

Why did working class people in the cities, towns and rural areas turn out in such large numbers against the Lisbon Treaty? Some suggestions that have come up can be dismissed quite easily. People did not vote no because they were concerned about conscription into an EU army. This was a spurious attempt by the likes of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to discredit the no campaign.

Yes campaign lies

The Eurobarometer poll specifically asked no voters if they voted “to protect our tax system” (the key issue that Libertas was concerned about was corporation tax) and only 6% said yes. It asked if they voted no because “It would allow the introduction of European legislation in Ireland such as gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia” and only 2% choose that as the reason. Clearly, the right-wing issues that groups such as Libertas and Coir campaigned on were not the key reasons why Lisbon was rejected by the Irish electorate.

Neither was a lack of information, in the way that it is being portrayed by some, a fundamental cause of the no vote. A text message to a young member of the Socialist Party from a politically non-aligned friend illustrates the thinking of many: “Well I was going to vote yes but I realised I didn’t know enough. Even after looking up the internet, I still couldn’t get info in layman’s terms so it all sounded a bit too forced, as if the bad stuff was being glossed over. So I voted no.” This message illustrates that there was a mistrust amongst voters of the establishment and a belief that information was deliberately being withheld from people or “spun” to suit the government and the EU’s agenda.

The yes campaign of the establishment parties and the EU political elite lost the arguments. When challenged on militarism, democracy, the issue of the commissioner, loss of vetoes, attacks on workers’ rights and the privatisation of public services, the yes campaign failed to allay people’s fears or were incapable of “hiding” the true aim of the Lisbon Treaty.

People’s fears hardened into mistrust in part because of how the yes campaign conducted itself. But these fears were also based on the reality of how increasingly power is being abused in the EU and in Ireland to the benefit of big business and at the expense of working people.

In most polls supposedly taken to find out why people voted no, questions about workers’ rights and the privatisation of health and education have been consciously excluded. However, in one poll by Sunday Business Post/Red C, 76% of no voters disagreed with the statement that Lisbon “strengthened the protection of workers rights,” clearly indicating quite a heightened consciousness on those issues.

Good for Ireland?

Domestic issues were a factor in the treaty campaign but they were not the dominant issues. The Lisbon Treaty was not simply defeated because of a strong anti-government mood. The yes side lost the referendum during a campaign in which they were politically extremely weak. Their argument that Europe had been good for Ireland and that Lisbon only contained technical changes – simple housekeeping – but nothing bad, just didn’t wash with people. The arguments from the no campaign were consistently and arrogantly dismissed by government ministers and senior political figures – however they weren’t effectively answered!

People increasingly and instinctively felt that there was more to the Lisbon Treaty than was being admitted and they were absolutely right. Becoming increasing fearful about the policies of EU, people were not of a mind to give the Irish establishment or the European establishment more power.

Lisbon was defeated for progressive reasons by the working class who are increasing opposing the myriad of policies and attacks on rights that globalisation means. Like the massive demonstrations against the “race to the bottom” at Irish Ferries, it illustrates the deep unease amongst the working class about the future and indicates the desire for an alternative.

What was striking about the Lisbon Treaty campaign was the shallowness of the authority of the establishment in all its guises. Their attempts to establish a strong base of support or acceptance for competition and the market are being undermined. It is particularly significant that two thirds of those who vote Labour voted against the treaty. Likewise, while clearly some workers voted yes, the working class in general firmly said no.

Union leaders mistaken

This indicates that the “social partnership” approach of most union leaders – a mistaken belief that it’s possible to work alongside the government to regulate neo-liberalism and negate its “nastier” aspects is increasingly becoming out of touch with how working class people think.

The result creates a crisis for the EU. Lisbon was an important step for them, particularly in developing the legal framework to help make the capitalist EU economically and militarily more capable of competing on the world stage. Unless it is ratified by all the 27 member states it cannot proceed. While doubts have been raised in both the Czech Republic and Poland in relation to Lisbon on foot of the Irish no, undoubtedly the political and business establishment in the EU will try to push ahead. However, a time bomb is ticking – a European recession is “coming down the tracks.” This will create serious economic and political instability throughout Europe, which could well increase the trend towards conflict not co-operation between EU countries.

If there are serious difficulties at EU level, they are magnified for the capitalist class in Ireland. They are now engaged in a “project” to “clarify the reasons underlying the rejection of the Treaty.” An attempt is being made to shift public opinion. Fear of being excluded from the EU is being pushed as a reason for why people should rethink their rejection of Lisbon. The government may attempt to combine this propaganda campaign with “opt outs” on some aspects of the treaty, with the hope that this would be enough to get them a yes vote in a second referendum before next June’s European and local elections.

The government and the other pro-Lisbon forces will try to either win over or neutralise sections of the no camp by specifically getting guarantees or opt outs on some of the key issues for groups like Libertas, Coir and Sinn Fein.

Libertas and Sinn Fein have publicly laid out their bargaining positions.

Such changes combined with a campaign that focuses on Ireland potentially being diminished to a second class EU status could result in a yes vote in a second referendum.

Recession blues

However, the sharp collapse of economic growth and the oncoming recession, with severe cutbacks in public spending and rising unemployment, can create further instability and a strong anti-government mood. If that were to happen, the ability to run and win a second referendum would be in serious jeopardy.

Will the new Taoiseach Cowen risk it all? If he lost a second referendum it would be a huge blow, having both very serious political and economic consequences. Ireland would be in EU cold storage and a general election would be a real possibility. It is possible that they may be forced to forgo a second referendum and step to the side of this EU process to allow the others to try to proceed, hoping to return into the fold at a later point.

In many respects, it is the economy that will dominate now over all other issues. With Lisbon, the establishment took people for granted. Inadvertently they gave the working class an opportunity to say no to the undermining of democratic rights and living conditions. Increasingly, people know that saying no is not enough. Lisbon shows the huge political vacuum that exists.

That political vacuum will be filled when significant sections of workers and young people engage in industrial action and or struggle to defend themselves and their communities against the government’s cuts and neo-liberal attacks. These struggles will push working class activists to get politically organised.

The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is a harbinger of change. The crisis of capitalism that is hitting right now will push people not just to vote but to act and will create the conditions that will transform the unions into fighting organisations, and lay the foundation for the building of a new mass working class party and a struggle for socialism.


EU elite won’t give up neo-liberal plans

Joe Higgins, former Socialist Party TD (member of Irish parliament, 1997-2007) and leading No campaigner.

In the course of the campaign leading up to the Lisbon Treaty referendum, and since the resounding no vote, some groups who opposed the treaty raised the possibility of its renegotiation to make it more acceptable to the Irish people. Sinn Fein, in particular argued for a "better deal" and that the no vote would give the Irish government a strong mandate to renegotiate Lisbon.

This is a mistaken approach which flies in the face of the fact that the Lisbon treaty is a crucial part of a strategy to further mould the European Union in the interest of the political and business establishment who dominate it. On that basis alone, Lisbon in any form would not be in the interests of working people throughout Europe.

The fact is that the EU Commission, and indeed governments throughout the EU, have been implementing neo-liberal economic policies, promoting privatisation of public services, attacks on the very idea of a decent job with decent wages and sharp attacks on the pension rights of workers. They have pushed the idea of competition in the capitalist market as a device to undermine decent wages and working conditions, promoting what we call "the race to the bottom".

The proposal in the Lisbon Treaty to remove the veto of each member state on world trade agreements, which would make public services like health, commodities to be traded in the market place is designed to push the neo liberal agenda further. Removing the veto makes the public services of each member state more vulnerable to privatisation pressures, since deals slowing multinational corporations to encroach, as of right, on such services could be forced through by a qualified majority votes.

The foreign policy and militarisation in the Lisbon Treaty show that the EU establishment have significant ambitions to be a major force on the international scene. Essentially they want to strut onto the world stage as a major economic and military power. They wish to be able to jockey with other big powers like the United States and China for markets, raw materials and political influence in the decades ahead.

There is no way that these major ambitions, which are aimed at increasing the profits and influence of EU based big business and its political mouthpieces, will be allowed to be derailed by a rejection in Ireland. If the EU establishment overturned the rejection three years ago of a similar document by the French and Dutch people in the pursuit of these ambitions, then they will certainly seek to do the same after the Irish rejection.

To speak in any serious way about a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty is to give the impression that, in some way, the capitalist class in the EU states would agree to significantly modify their core interests because of the opposition of the left in Ireland. Of course there is not even the remotest possibility of this. This is not to say they wouldn’t be prepared to make some cosmetic changes to make the treaty look different. They could agree, for example, that they would maintain the practice of having a Commissioner from each member state. This would in no way fundamentally alter their key objective.

The correct approach for the left to adopt, and certainly a principled socialist approach is to say honestly that the European Union was conceived and created as a club for big business in Europe and as such any proposals to streamline or strengthen that club must be strongly opposed.

We should counterpose the idea of a completely different kind of Europe – a democratic and socialist Europe. Instead of massive powerful corporations dominating society in the interest of the maximisation of corporate profit, we stand for a Europe which is democratically run by and for the benefit of the big majority, working people. This means taking the giant financial institutions and major industry into public ownership and democratically controlled by the workers who run them together with representation from working people generally in society.

By spelling out now our critique of an EU dominated by big business and our vision of an alternative Europe, we put ourselves in a strong moral and political position to meet any attempt by the government at the behest of the EU establishment to foist Lisbon on the Irish people once again.

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August 2008