The results are in and the Irish have voted against the Lisbon Treaty. This obviously has serious consequences for the future of the EU and its institutions. But what of the wider political importance of the Irish “No” vote? Why should this be of interest to those outside of Ireland and outside of Europe?
Above all, the “No” vote is a positive sign of a growing unwillingness to accept the word of experts. The “Yes” campaign was fought around the message of Trust us, we know the Treaty is horribly complicated so just leave it up to us. Rather than go into detail about the provisions of the treaty, the “Yes” campaign relied on platitudes about a globalized world throwing up new challenges that require more cooperation between states. Faced with such tired clichés, people were right to demand more and–not getting it–to vote No.
After all the bullying from Brussels and disparaging remarks from experts, enough people in Ireland have had the confidence to reject the politics of the fait accompli. As with previous referendums on EU treaties, the choice was not really a choice at all. The Lisbon Treaty was already, in the language of Eurocrats, a Plan B; there is no Plan C. In rejecting the elite’s view that there is no alternative to the Lisbon Treaty, the “No” vote has given voice to a common frustration across Europe about populations being expected to toe the line. This connects the Irish campaign to the rest of Europe, where already the cracks in the facade of the technocratic, expertise-based politics of consensus are growing.
The second key point, however, is that the political potential of the “No” vote rests on our rescuing it from the populist temptation. Populism is a mixture of the political right and left; it is a fusion of nationalist rhetoric with the force of popular democracy, all of which we have seen in the Irish campaign. The “No” camp was made up of right-wing marketeers who think the EU is a socialist super-state in the making. It also contained Catholic militants who feared an EU challenge to Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, antiwar protesters defending the shibboleth of Irish neutrality, and an old nationalist commitment by Sinn Féin to Irish sovereignty. What they had in common was their defense of Ireland and Irish interests against the encroachments of an alien Brussels bureaucracy.
Herein lies the limits of the “No” campaign: it cast the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty as a matter of Ireland versus the EU. In time, this will only serve to defend the Irish state against its own internal divisions. Asserting a common unity among antiwar lefties and pro-life Catholics is the hidden truth of the “No” campaign: it displaces real divisions and masks them under the false unity of the anti-EU banner.
Where does this leave us? The positive kernel in the “No” vote has been the rejection of the politics of consensus. This is a genuinely universal moment. It connects the Irish campaign to the “No” campaigns in France and Holland in 2005, to the earlier rejections of Nice Treaty in Ireland in 2001, and the other disavowals of the EU in Norway, Switzerland and Denmark throughout the 1990s. It also connects Western and Eastern Europe. As we saw in Hungary in October 2006, political instability in the East is fueled by a growing rejection of the brazen elitism of the countries’ leaders. What is slowly emerging is European unity, but not as its founders expected. We are seeing the beginnings of a new union of European people mobilized against the politics of consensus and technocracy.
Yet left to its own devices, this new unity will remain constrained by its populist limitations. We must reject the populist claim that the choice we face is between the nation and the EU. At issue here is not the nation-state versus an EU superstate but rather the confrontation between two different visions of politics. One is a politics of consensus, emphasizing expertise and technocracy and advocating a blind trust of the people in their leaders. The other is a politics of popular involvement, where people demand to know what is at issue so that they can decide for themselves and where the dividing lines are around issues that transcend national frontiers.
Such a confrontation does not pit European states against the EU, since the politics of consensus has its roots at home and national elites have done more than anyone else to siphon off decision-making power to unelected bodies of experts. The real choice that faces us is about what kind of politics we want. This is message we should be taking from the Irish result.