Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Europe’s Political Deficit

(Thanks to IntLawGrrls for inviting me to do this guest post!)

The Irish government has announced that a second Irish referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty will be held in the autumn. As IntLawGrrls have posted, the treaty was rejected by Ireland’s voters in a referendum last June. (photo by Peter O'Neill of "No to Lisbon" poster in the west of Ireland, June 2008)
The Lisbon Treaty is effectively a ‘de-constitutionalized’ version of the EU Constitutional Treaty, which French and Dutch voters had rejected in popular referenda in 2005. (Prior IntLawGrrls posts).
At the same time, recent newspaper reports are suggesting that across Europe in one month's time, the turnout is likely to be lower than ever for European Parliament elections.
Each of these news reports highlights an aspect of what might be called Europe’s political deficit – in other words, the chronic lack of political engagement of ordinary European citizens with the EU, and the failure or unwillingness of Europe’s political leaders to fully grasp this fact.
In a recent paper, I criticized the EU’s response to Ireland’s no vote to the Lisbon Treaty on the basis that the EU leadership chose to treat the referendum result as essentially an Irish problem rather than as a European problem. According to the Europe’s political leaders, the no-vote reflected concerns specific to the Irish population. The solution proposed was for the Irish government to suggest ways for the EU to respond to these particular concerns -- ultimately, through a package of largely redundant legal and political ‘guarantees’ -- so that the Lisbon Treaty could be ratified.
In this sense, Ireland's no-vote to Lisbon was treated very differently from the French and Dutch no-votes to the Constitutional Treaty in 2005. On that occasion, the complex but overwhelming tide of discontent reflected in the no-votes was quickly recognized as a collective European problem rather than as a specifically Dutch or French problem, and the Constitutional Treaty in its original form was rapidly declared to be dead.
My paper argues that despite the various plausible reasons for distinguishing between the Constitutional Treaty no-votes and the Lisbon Treaty no-vote, the EU strategy of treating Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty as primarily an Irish problem is a short-sighted one which is likely to backfire in the longer term. Ireland's no-vote is merely the latest manifestation of an ongoing crisis of popular legitimacy in the EU, and the European Council's strategy of treating it as essentially an Irish problem is part of the ongoing failure of Europe's political leaders to acknowledge the link between this crisis of popular legitimacy and the deliberately de-politicized nature of the European Union.
If you’re interested in reading more about the debate on whether and how to politicize the European Union, have a look at this exchange on the subject between Simon Hix of the London School of Economics and Stefano Bartolini of the European University Institute.


Naomi Norberg said...

Welcome and thanks, Gráinne. Your analysis is right on the mark. Here in France, the Irish no produced a lot of buzz about the Irish being ungrateful after having benefited from Europe, whereas the French and Dutch no votes were based on Europe's lack of social protections. Of course, the referendum lost here not only because of no votes, but because of lack of votes from both apathetic and over-confident voters. I couldn't vote then, but I can and will be voting in June!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Gráinne. I too think there's what you call a crisis of legitimacy, and it's felt across Europe - I get a bit fed up of being told (often by British people) I only think this because I'm British. My Austrian friends, too, feel there's nothing they can do that could possibly affect what happens in Brussels - in other words, there's no political connection between them and "it". Irish voters must feel that more than anyone else, since even a referendum hasn't been listened to.

I'm quite happy with the content of Lisbon, but (perhaps oddly in some people's view) I hope the Irish vote No again. I'm fed up of EU leaders spouting nonsense they don't mean about the EU getting 'closer to its citizens", while all the time it's drifting further away. We actually need a major crisis in the EU if we're ever going to put this in reverse, and one day have a real polity.

Thanks for your book Craig and de Búrca, too... I've relied on it a lot, and you'd be amazed how much the British government owed you if you were paid per page view.

I hope you'll blog more in the future!

Grainne said...

Thanks to Naomi and Carl for your comments. I think the second Lisbon referendum will be an interesting one to watch. However, all the signs at the moment (according to recent opinion polls) suggest that there will be a different outcome this time round, and that the Treaty will be ratified. Like Carl, I think that there is much in the Lisbon Treaty that is good, but I find it slightly depressing that the main interest which Irish voters have in the EU is in the economic support it is believed to provide. It reminds me of the Irish government's (successful) campaign in favour of the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when emphasis was repeatedly placed on the 8 billion pounds in structural funds which Ireland was then expected to receive from the EU. It doesn't exactly bode well for the development of a real European politics or a European 'public sphere'.