A matter of respect

A pro-European poster in Ireland

By Richard Laming

There has been some interesting Eurosceptic criticism lately of the European Parliament’s vote against an amendment “to respect the outcome of the referendum in Ireland” on the Lisbon treaty. But to understand the complaint, we have to ask what it means: to respect the outcome.

Think about what would have happened if the vote on the amendment had gone the other way. Would it mean that the European Parliament would not express any opinion on the treaty until the Irish referendum was out of the way? And, once that referendum had been held, would the European Parliament have been compelled to adopt the same opinion as that expressed by the Irish people?

Either of those two outcomes makes no sense.

The European Parliament is elected directly by the people of Europe to represent their views as a whole. The idea that the parliament should be constrained by national political deliberations is absurd. Why should British, French and Germans voters be denied a voice in Europe because of an outstanding ratification? The European Union is a multi-level system: national political decisions matter intensely, but alongside European political decisions and not instead of them.

It is also interesting that the Eurosceptic demand related only to the Irish ratification and not to the ratifications in any other countries. There was no amendment demanding that the EP should respect the outcome of the vote in Slovakia, for example. Or why not Hungary? Although this last one is a trick question, because the Hungarian vote has already taken place. The European Parliament shouldn’t be asked to respect the outcomes of votes elsewhere: it should be expected to express its own opinions directly itself.

In response to the suggestion that a national referendum should be treated differently from a parliamentary vote, why is this a matter for the European Parliament? It is up to each member state to decide for itself how it should ratify a European treaty: the Eurosceptics ought to be the last people to insist that European considerations should override national constitutional provisions.

Just to be clear, personally I think the idea of ratification by referendum is a good one, but ratification is a Europe-wide consideration and the referendum ought to be held on a Europe-wide basis, too. There would have to be provisions for member states where the majority was No and not Yes, in the event that the majority across Europe as a whole was for Yes, but all of this will have to wait for the next treaty to be ratified, should there ever be one.

In the meantime, let us return to the referendum in Ireland. The Irish constitution spells out clearly that every change in the European treaties has to be approved by the people directly. (Again, this is an elegant principle that other countries might do well to consider adopting. The recent debate in Britain about a referendum, for example, would have been entirely unnecessary if the British had already codified their constitutional arrangements, although illogically enough many of the advocates of a referendum have been firm opponents of a written constitution.)

Because every treaty amendment has to be approved by every member state, the outcome of the referendum in Ireland will of course have implications throughout the European Union, even without the EP amendment I mentioned earlier. For that reason, eyes from across the continent will be on Ireland when the referendum takes place, which raises in turn a different issue of respect.

Will those Eurosceptics who have been calling for respect of the outcome also show respect for the process? Will the Irish people be allowed to make their own decision on Europe in their own way, or will foreign millionaires and foreign-owned newspapers join the campaign for a No vote?

The British, for example, are regularly subject to this kind of interference in their political process. Will the Irish be spared? For those people who say that respect for the Irish referendum is what matters, let us see if their actions match their words.

Richard Laming is director of Federal Union, and may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. An extract of this article was published on EUobserver.com on 12 March 2008. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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