The Lisbon Treaty after the Irish ‘No’ Vote: Ways out of the Impasse

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The Lisbon Treaty after the Irish ‘No’ Vote: Ways out of the Impasse
by Dr. Alexander Türk, School of Law, King's College London, General Editor EU Tracker.
The Lisbon Treaty is an essential step towards a modern structure of the European Union, which has been put to a halt by a "No" of the Irish voters, a dilemma for the whole EU. The article discusses ways out of the current deadlock.
The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 was presented to voters in the European Union in terms of a 'Reform Treaty' stripped of the more ambitious constitutional attributes of the failed Constitutional Treaty of 2004. While it is doubtful that the removal of certain 'constitutional' provisions relating to the flag, the anthem, the motto ('united in diversity'!), and even the primacy clause, was of great significance, it was hoped that such a move would facilitate the ratification process in the Member States. Moreover, in order to ensure a smooth ratification, France and the Netherlands, whose citizens rejected the Constitutional Treaty in a referendum, opted for the parliamentary process of ratification to avoid difficulties with their electorate.


All the same, in the only Member State, Ireland, which did put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum, it received a resounding 'No'. A report commissioned by the Irish government identified as the main reasons for the rejection complaints by Irish voters about a lack of information, worries about the loss of the 'Irish' Commissioner, concerns about the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on Irish corporation tax, on social standards, on the right to life, family and education, as well as fears about Irish neutrality and of being conscripted into a European army. The report also made it clear while they had reservations about the Lisbon Treaty, the Irish voters did not question membership in the European Union as such.


While a search out of the impasse is underway, the situation in which the EU finds itself is not without precedent in the history of European integration. The historical antecedents therefore provide a guide as to what the likely outcome is going to look like. Following the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by the Danish voters in June 1992, the Danish parliament formulated eight demands (by and large remarkably similar to those raised by Irish voters), which it thought had to be met before the Danish people could be asked to vote again. While the governments of the other Member States were prepared to adopt certain measures so that the Maastricht Treaty could be passed in a second Danish referendum, any changes to the Treaty which required the re-opening of the intergovernmental negotiations were out of the question. The compromise, found in the Edinburgh Agreement (1992), consisted of a direct response to the Danish 'demands' in Part B of the Edinburgh European Council conclusions 'Denmark and the Treaty on European Union', while Part A addressed the 'other' demands formulated by Denmark. The Edinburgh Agreement proved sufficient to achieve a 'Yes' vote in the second Danish referendum in May 1993, clearing the way for the entering into force of the Maastricht Treaty.


Part B contained a Decision, which was not adopted by the European Council, but by the 'Heads of State or Government, meeting within the European Council', thereby raising questions as to its legal status. All the same, the Decision was regarded merely as clarification without amendment to the Maastricht Treaty itself. The Decision contained re-assurances on the status of EU citizenship; an acceptance that Denmark would not participate in the third stage of EMU; a statement that Denmark would not be included in the EU's defence policy by noting that it was merely an observer to the Western European Union (WEU) and did not partake in decisions and actions of the EU relating to defence matters, while allowing closer co-operation between the other Member States in this area; an assurance of its full co-operation in Justice and Home affairs; and the possibility for Denmark to inform other Member States 'that it no longer wishes to avail itself of all or part of this decision'. The Edinburgh Agreement also contained a Declaration by the European Council which stated that the Treaty on European Union did not prevent Member States from imposing standards which were more stringent than those adopted by the EC Treaty in the field of social policy, environmental and consumer protection, as well as confirming that the distribution of income and social welfare benefits were matters for the Member States. A second Declaration by the European Council noted that Denmark would not exercise its Presidency rights in cases related to the EU's defence matters. Three unilateral Declarations by Denmark which were acknowledged by the other Member States conclude the Edinburgh Agreement. The Declarations on Citizenship of the Union and on Co-operation in the Fields of Justice and Home Affairs complement the corresponding part in the Decision of the European Council. The third Declaration stresses that for Denmark the Decision of the European Council is compatible with the TEU and its objectives, perhaps to reassure the other Member States.


Part A addressed the other 'demands' formulated by Denmark, notably on measures to combat unemployment, on greater openness and transparency in the EU and the effective application of the subsidiarity principle. Arguably, these issues left a more lasting legacy in European Union law. The Amsterdam Treaty, which followed the Maastricht Treaty, included 'the promotion of a high level of employment' as objective in Article 2 TEU and inserted a new title on 'Employment' in the EC Treaty. Moreover, the Amsterdam Treaty also introduced the principle of openness in Article 1 TEU and Article 255 EC Treaty contained the new principle of access to documents. Finally, the 'Protocol on Subsidiarity and Proportionality' provided more details as to the application of these principles.


The second example of how a 'No' vote in a referendum can be overcome in a second referendum is supplied by Ireland itself, in relation to the Nice Treaty. Following the rejection of the Nice Treaty by the Irish electorate in June 2001, the Irish government adopted a 'National Declaration' which was to be associated with any Irish ratification of the Nice Treaty. The declaration was intended to reassure Irish voters that the EU's security and defence policy as laid down in the Nice Treaty would not compromise the traditional military neutrality of Ireland, mainly because any move towards a common European defence would require Irish consent in the form of a referendum. The European Council in its Seville Declaration in June 2002 acknowledged the Irish position in that it confirmed that the Nice Treaty would not affect Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality. This proved sufficient for the Irish government to hold a second referendum in October 2002, which approved the Nice Treaty.


While a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty was never a viable option, the European Council in its December 2008 meeting agreed in broad terms a plan to pave the way for a second referendum in Ireland in the latter part of 2009, thereby following the arrangements made for allowing a second referendum on the Treaties of Maastricht and Nice outlined above. Despite serious misgivings on the part of some Member States, which considered a reduction of the size of the College of Commissioners necessary for its effective functioning, the European Council agreed that 'provided the Treaty of Lisbon enters into force, a decision will be taken [...] to the effect that the Commission shall continue to include one national of each Member State'. It is not without irony that should the Irish electorate reject the Lisbon Treaty a second time, the current regime under the Nice Treaty which requires the reduction of the Commission will have to be applied (see Article 4(2) of the Protocol on Enlargement of the EU attached to the Nice Treaty). The European Council also agreed to provide Ireland with legal guarantees relating to taxation policy, the right to life, education and the family, as well as Ireland's traditional policy of neutrality. These guarantees will not be included in the Lisbon Treaty itself, as this would re-open the re-ratification process in the Member States which have already ratified the Lisbon Treaty. It is rather envisaged (at least by French President Sarkozy) to include these guarantees in a Protocol to be attached to the next Accession Treaty, most likely with Croatia. On workers' rights, the European Council, mainly due to the objection of the United Kingdom to a legally binding guarantee, will merely provide assurances restating the 'high importance' of these issues. The details of these terms will have to be agreed by the end of the Czech Presidency to allow the referendum, to which the Irish government has already agreed, to take place in the latter part of the year, probably October 2009. It is said that the (second) referendum will then also contain a vote on a ban on conscription to assuage fears of the Irish electorate in this respect.



M. Cahill, 'Ireland's Constitutional Amendability and Europe's Constitutional Ambition: the Lisbon Referendum in Context' (2008) German Law Journal 1191-1218

C. Costello, 'Ireland's Nice Referenda' (2005) EUConst 357

P. Gjortler, 'Denmark: ratifying the Treaty on European Union: an interim report' (1993) European Law Review 356-360

K. Hayward, '"If at first you don't succeed ..." The Second Referendum on the Treaty of Nice 2002' (2003) Irish Political Studies 120

G. Hogan, 'The Nice Treaty and the Irish Constitution' (2001) European Public Law 565

D. Howarth, 'The Compromise on Denmark and the Treaty on European Union: a Legal and Political Anlalysis' (1994) Common Market Law Review 765-805

T. Worre, 'First No, Then Yes: The Danish Referendums on the Maastricht Treaty 1992 and 1993' (1995) Journal of Common Market Studies 235-257

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