All eyes on Irish in key E.U. vote

On Thursday, Ireland will be – for a day, at least – the most influential country in Europe, as its citizens vote on a treaty designed to streamline continent-wide cooperation on everything from climate change to international terrorism.

Advocates hope the outcome will be more than a better-oiled bureaucracy, however. They say the Lisbon Treaty would strengthen the European Union on the world stage, giving it more leverage on important issues such as its energy policy toward Russia, which has been hamstrung by a lack of coordination for years.

In order to go into effect, the treaty must be ratified by all 27 members of the EU. Ireland alone has put the treaty up for a public referendum instead of a parliamentary vote, essentially giving Irish voters a veto over the whole process.

Yet in an ironic twist for a treaty intended to “promote the interests of its citizens on a day-to-day basis,” many Irish are so befuddled by the 269 pages of what one expert calls “Eurobabble” that they don’t even understand what they’re voting on.

“It’s impossible to read,” says Maria Cahill from the law faculty at the University of Ireland in Galway. “It’s a civil servant’s manual rather than something the average citizen could read. Even if you do get through the text, it makes references to all of the other [EU] treaties, so it would take weeks to get a comprehensive understanding of what it’s about.”

But Gavin Barrett, an expert in EU law at University College’s School of Law in Dublin, believes the treaty’s unreadability is overstated. “In its consolidated form it is eminently readable,” he says. “Even though it addresses several dozen issues and some of these are quite technical, particularly relating to the institutions.”

Too much ‘Eurobabble’

The treaty, meant to make the expanded EU more efficient and effective, is a redrafted version of the failed EU Constitution, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 referendums. In a recent poll, 35 percent of undecided voters and the majority of those planning on voting against it cited confusion about what the treaty means as their reason for opposing it.

To ensure clarity, the Irish government appointed an independent Referendum Commission to simplify the text of the treaty, which would give the EU a president and increase national representation. Advertisements were placed on billboards and websites, and a 16-page booklet was sent to every household clarifying the main provisions of the treaty and explaining terms like “Qualified Majority voting,” “ordinary Legislative procedures,” and “special Legislative procedures.”

But Margaret E. Ward of Clearink, a Dublin-based company that advocates plain English in legal documents, says this obtuse language is not necessary. “In the United States, there is a whole movement towards modern legal drafting,” she says. “It is possible to write clearly and not leave yourself open to legal liability.” Instead, the EU uses what she calls “Eurobabble.”

“If the EU continue to insist on speaking in this jargon that none of its citizens can understand, they are distancing themselves from the people they represent,” she says.

Focus on individual citizen is lost

Terry Prone, director of the Dublin-based public-relations company The Communications Clinic, agrees that the Lisbon Treaty referendum is a microcosm of the EU’s failure to communicate with a large number of citizens.

“The EU is supposed to be about the individual citizen,” she says. “That has seriously gone by the wayside in communication terms.”

The various entities advocating a ‘yes’ vote also haven’t convinced voters. “Whatever they have published has tended to be as obscure as the treaty document itself,” Ms. Prone says. “In contrast, the ‘no’ side were out early in the campaign with simple, frightening negatives.”

The Referendum Commission intervened and contradicted some of these negatives, in particular, the issues of Ireland’s constitutional position on abortion and low corporate tax rates, neither of which would be affected by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, as claimed by opponents.

Lucinda Creighton, spokeswoman on European Affairs for the Fine Gael Party, which is advocating a ‘yes’ vote, says that the ‘yes’ campaign had to continually rebut false allegations from the no camp, which prevented it from getting its own message across.

But she agrees that the campaign hasn’t always explained the treaty well. “It is bizarre that 96 percent of the members of the Dáil [the Irish parliament] are in favor of the treaty, yet the political parties have not been able to get this voting base on board,” she says.

In addition, major trade unions, farmers organizations, industrial agencies, and newspapers are campaigning for acceptance, but voters seem to be reacting against the establishment.

“It is a tendency in society in general,” says Dr. Barrett. “We saw something similar happening in France [during the 2005 EU constitution referendum], where the two largest political parties recommended a particular course of action, but the electorate went a different route. The same thing happened in the Netherlands.”

Should it be a public vote?

“A question mark has to put over whether the Lisbon Treaty is a suitable issue to be voted on directly,” says Barrett. “The argument in favor is that it is a very important matter, but the argument against is that casting an informed vote should be left to the legislature, as other member states have done.”

“Treaties are designed for parliamentary ratification, not referenda,” agrees Ms. Creighton.

But Libertas, a pro-European organization campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, claims that it is essential that people have this mandate.

“These major decisions shouldn’t be made at such a remove from the citizens,” says executive director Naoise Nunn. “Eighty percent of national domestic legislation derives from the implementation of EU directives and law, therefore issues like the treaty are enormously important to our day-to-day lives.”

In public opinion surveys such as Eurobarometer, Irish citizens generally exhibit pro-European attitudes. “But people are suspicious that the [treaty’s] language is vague,” says Mr. Nunn. “There is a sense that it is happening too fast and that the political elite isn’t bringing the citizens with it.”