31 May 2012. This is the date Taoiseach Enda Kenny, head of Fine Gael currently senior partner in a center-left and center-right coalition with the Irish Labour Party since 9 March 2011, has chosen to hold the referendum validating the ratification of the EU's Fiscal Compact signed on 2 March 2012 by the Oireachtas - the country's parliament. This referendum is a major stake for this once prosperous nation, which has suffered from the economic crisis. For the first time, this insular 4.5 million inhabitants republic, which has a habit of rejecting treaties at first (like Lisbon or Nice), could this time find itself completely isolated should the "no" win.
Once a stronghold of growth, now a drifting islet
Since 2008, Ireland has been lying in the eye of the financial cyclone. The first European state to have entered recession, Ireland has seen its unemployement reach historical levels : 326,000 people, the highest number since 1967. This crisis has created major disruptions in its economy : the Irish banking system, the Irish stock exchange (having lost more than 8,000 points) and the Fianna Fail, having governed the country for more than 60 years, have all collapsed.
The first solution to this crisis was a major intervention from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund with a €85bn bailout, litteraly saving the Irish state from bankrupcy. On the longer term, it is the European Fiscal Compact, signed on 2 March 2012 which ought to lead the eurozone, and Europe in general, out of the crisis.
As imposed by the constitution of this country (by a decision of its Supreme Court in 1987), ratification of this treaty must be subject to a popular referendum. Whether or not one approves or disapproves of this method of direct democracy, there remains a risk that the country will reject it. Although a recent poll by the Sunday Independent showed that 36% of the Irish people would vote for and 26% against, 15% remained undecided. These 15% have to power to shift the balance in favour of the "no". In 2008, 5 months before the Lisbon vote, there was also a majority in favour.
One remembers how fierce the media campaign against Lisbon was, and it was lead by -among others- Declan Ganley and his political party Libertas, which eventually delayed its coming into effect by more than six months. But this time a provision is included in the treaty so that should it be ratified by at least 12 states, it would immediatly come into effect. Lisbon would come into effect on the first day of the first month following the last ratification of the treaty. But in 2012, with financial decisions often taking place before those of our politicians, this method has become obsolete.
However, can we really think that this treaty would be practical should only 12 states ratify it ? What would happen if Greece, Italy and Portugal did ratify it but the Netherlands, Finland and Germany did not ? What about if Ireland, Grece and Cyprus rejected it : would we not christening a ship with a gigantic hole in its hull ?
Lessons learned from the past ?
How can we successfully lead a campaign in Ireland so that the treaty be accepted by the population ? Unlike European elections, a pan-European campaign is highly inadvisable. First, because it could cause a massive uproar in states which are only going through parliamentary ratification, with people demanding "fairer" and "more democratic" referenda. Then, because recent interventions of foreign leaders and dignitaries have had some rather dire side effects.
It happened in France, during the current presidential campaigen, when some thought Merkel's backing of Nicolas Sarkozy was highly inappriopriate. All the more, the German Chancellor had already be at the center of a controversy for having appeared during the Lisbon campaign in Dublin and calling on the Irish to vote in favour of it. Now that the Emerald Isle has had to allow the IMF and the EU to intervene in its economy, and impose painful reforms on it, it is probably not the right time for EU leaders to visit Dublin.
So will the text be adopted by the Irish ? For now, major political forces and most mainstream media seem to back the "yes" campaign, but it is not sure whether public opinion will follow. One can remember that in 2008 the main argument against Lisbon was a major loss of sovereignty of Ireland to Brussels. The Fiscal Compact is precisely doing the same, however not in political but in economic domains. And as the Irish Independent recently put it, "outside surveuillance is a loss of sovereignty - but largely of the sovereign right to be irresponsible."
- Bye-bye Bertie, The Economist, 31 March 2012
- Ireland set for referendum on eurozone fiscal treaty, The Guardian, 28 February 2012
- Don’t panic (much) about the Irish referendum, Financial Times, 29 February 2012
- Mixed response to Irish referendum move on EU treaty, TheParliament.com, 29 February 2012