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Does the Irish rejection of the Draft Constitutional Treaty signal that democracy is alive and well in the EU

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Political Studies

Governing the EU


‘Does the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty signal that democracy is alive and well in the EU?’

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Student ID: 200332132

‘Does the Irish rejection of the Draft Constitutional Treaty signal that democracy is alive and well in the EU?’

The Irish rejection of the draft constitutional Treaty of Lisbon highlights various implications for the apparent democratic deficit concerning the EU. Firstly, it is important to recognise that there are numerous potential reasons for the lack of democratic legitimacy within the EU that do not signal well for its citizens. These will be considered alongside the issues surrounding the Irish rejection of the draft constitution to gain an overall insight into the topic of democracy in the EU. The main themes that will be considered include the issues of the value and accuracy of referendums, other member states who’s citizens that have rejected some form of the draft constitution, the problem of identity and transparency concerning the EU. The argument that there is not a sufficient opportunity for public discourse and the representational issues, regarding voting and the possibility of them being substandard due to affecting factors such as domestic issues swaying peoples decisions. All these points are important when considering the democratic qualities of the European Union, using potential signals, such as the rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon by the Irish in order to establish if democracy is, indeed, alive and well in the EU.

The Irish rejection of the treaty could be due to a numbers of factors, which include; the obvious impression that the rejection implies that the Irish electorate are unsure about the contents of the draft constitution set out in the Treaty of Lisbon. This option may be as a result of citizens being uncomfortable with European intervention in areas such as laws on taxation, the family and abortion. Even though polls suggest that around 70% of Irish citizens approve of the EU[1]. This could be because it is said that Ireland has done particularly well from being a member of the European Union. This implies that the Irish referendum is displaying proper democratic attributes – helping the Irish to have an influence in the formation of crucial EU policy. This suggests that citizens are worried of the overall sovereignty and traditional values such as military neutrality and abortion will come under threat. There was considerable support in favour of the referendum, in the shape of the largest opposition party named Fine Gael, as well as the Labour Party. However, the vote came out in favour of rejection. This shows that there are potentially other factors that may have affected the outcome of the Irish referendum, which have implications for the alleged democratic deficit. It could be due to the whole hesitation of handing over sovereignty to an unfamiliar and potentially undemocratic organisation. Therefore, before a whole understanding on the implications of the referendum can be accurately applied to a thesis it is important to consider other factors that may have encouraged a ‘no’ vote on the draft constitution set out in the Lisbon Treaty including the possible areas that lack democratic creditability.

Citizens from France and the Netherlands both rejected the original attempt at a draft constitution set out in the Treaty of Nice. In both countries had support from the main political parties on the approval of the draft constitution. In the Netherlands 61.6% said ‘no’ even though the trade unions, political parties and newspapers were in favour of it. This implies that the general feeling among citizens who rejected the draft constitution was due to a feeling that national sovereignty, laws and specific traditional values will be infringed upon. This can be correlated by the areas of concern that were outlined by the Irish Prime Minister in regards to the Treaty of Lisbon. The Irish government are campaigning within the EU to get the legal guarantees surrounding their national views on policy concerning national family values and abortion included in the amendments. In order to gain a clear overall insight it is important to address democratic issues surrounding the EU, but firstly one must define the accuracy of referendums through analysing their worth before moving on.

The trouble with using the result of a referendum as a signal for the well-being of democracy for the European Union is that the whole concept of a referendum has possible inadequacies in presenting a wholly accurate depiction of democracy. Although it can be argued that a referendum is one of the purest forms of democracy – there are certain factors concerning the process and the environment, especially in this particular situation, that could affect the outcome. The factors of those who maintain general opinions of pessimism or distrust towards the EU may always vote no regardless of the question. There is the possibility of certain current national issues affecting the decision. This tells us that the very nature of referendums is contested because of affecting factors, coupled with a potentially uneducated or even misinformed on the topic in question. This implies the need to investigate other areas of potential democratic deficits in order to come to the conclusion of whether democracy is indeed live and well in the EU.

The European Union is in a period of slow, deliberate and crucial reform. The attempt to streamline and consolidate the increasing powers concerning the institutions within the Union and the general focus of the EU is addressed by agreements such as the Treaty of Lisbon. The Irish rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon may be a democratic process of allowing Irish citizens to directly influence their position on European matters. However, there always a possibility that the position taken by the Irish is for reasons that do not surround the contents or implications of the treaty itself. The European Union may simply not be trusted by certain citizens because it is an unfamiliar or distant entity that they would not be inclined to vote ‘yes’ to consolidate and streamline its powers. This highlights a democratic flaw in the makeup of the EU that concerns not only Ireland.  The EU may have progressed in terms of accumulating power and the legal authority to back it up. However, it lacks an identity or connection to member states that citizens can associate with and put trust into. This implies that while there was merely an unsuccessful exercise of direct democracy; the reasons for voting ‘no’ could potentially either be due to a general distain for the European Union or scepticism owing to a uniformed and, perhaps, incomplete knowledge of the specific issue and even potentially of the institution as a whole. This tells us that while there are more than likely many citizens who are informed and rational about what they vote on concerning the European Union; the confusion or cynicism that may derive from expecting citizens of member states to be interested or knowledgeable about a topic that is so far away from home.

This is backed up by the deficient correlation of relevant press releases by the Commission to the actual articles published in the mass media. This implies that citizens around the European Community may not be properly informed by the most effective means possible. This could be because constant relevant and important information on the European Union is not a profitable venture for media agencies. However, there are not many other effective means of distributing relevant information. In the case of a referendum it may be more widely publicised. However, it is very likely that a lot of significant information surrounding the event and the general sense of feeling accustomed to the activities of the EU will not be an entity enjoyed by various citizens, especially those who are not from larger, more involved and traditionally enthusiastic member states.

Another issue that may affect the democratic creditability of the European Union is connected to the subjects of trust and scepticism. The transparency of operations within the EU and the conduct of certain actors inside the institutions are questionable in terms of legitimacy and accountability. The increase in the use of informal meetings to come to informal conclusions outside of the typical channels of accountability have given weight to the claim that these ‘trilogues’ have helped to create doubt on the legitimacy of the decision-making process. It is true that the introduction of the methods of considering policy help to increase the efficiency and speed up the process on deliberating policy. However, it does not help to comfort those who are already somewhat disillusioned by the state of the democratic deficit. This implies that the sheer amount of bureaucracy and process involved in operating such a complex multi-level supranational organisation requires a certain amount of informal process and potential sacrifice of democratic qualities in order to function with any real purpose and effectiveness. The whole issue of the noticeable democratic deficit within the EU may be another potential reason as to why the Irish rejected the Treaty of Lisbon in their first referendum. It is possible that citizens from the Irish member state are not willing to approve a treaty that will potentially impose more authority over their nation when they are despondent on the current state of democracy that it upholds.

The concept of an informal decision process may have more negative implications for smaller, newer and as a result; prospectively less influential member states. Presumably it is not difficult to imagine that larger and more influential countries in the European Union may have even more influence in an informal environment where they can use their advantage to bully certain other member states into their way of thinking. In a formal situation each actor is assigned certain relative and equal powers to make their voice heard, but in an informal situation none of these facts are guaranteed. This tells us that even though there have been propositions to attempt to enrich the democratic qualities of the European Union set out in the Treaty of Lisbon; the processes put in place to combat bureaucracy and ensure a more efficient system of decision making has resulted in potential distrust discrediting the reputation of the European Union. As mentioned earlier the EU cannot rely on its historical identity as a form of legitimacy, so it has to rely on performance to legitimise its actions. This means that it is very important not to provide a situation whereby the reputation and integrity of the Union can be questioned.

The idea that Irish citizens may vote in the referendum based on their opinion conceived from the current national issues or state of affairs is another option on top of voting against the whole concept of the EU, when considering referendums and their meanings. This implies that the negative outcome for the vote does not necessarily reflect badly on the European Union. It points to the inadequacies of using a system of instructing a potentially ill-informed electorate on an issue that has so many potential affecting factors. The eventual outcome could be an inaccurate depiction of the real opinion because of various factors, such as the domestic political climate that affect people’s decisions when voting. The European elections have come under fire for the same reason of national issues affecting outcomes, added to the even more depressing turnout figures. This implies an overall democratic deficit in regards to representation of the European community in Brussels. Not only are the representatives subject to less legitimately acquired positions in the European Parliament, but their powers are inferior to what one would expect available to someone in the same position residing in a typical liberal democracy.

The fact that the European Parliament cannot vote on the formation of the executive branch of the EU shows they don’t have essential powers needed to provide sufficient accountability and representation to empower the electorate and enhance legitimacy. The perceivable insufficiency of these essential requirements for meaningful elections is connected to the argument that elections for the EU cannot be conducted with any real legitimacy until the elections are taken seriously to the extent whereby people are properly engaged, informed, interested and trusting of the whole process. The problem with existing European elections, it is argued, is that if they don’t have an enriched period running up to the elections for campaigns and political education; they cannot claim as much legitimacy during the ‘inter-election’ period. This is because the mass media may not be covering such elections in the detail that would be expected in a domestic situation. This could be due to the fact that Europe might be seen as a distant and confusing topic. Clearly there are individuals who take an active interest in the European electoral process; however it is not so widely available to the whole electorate to enable a substantial amount of participation. This implies there is a democratic deficit because election outcomes are potentially based upon poor turnout, an ill-informed and apathetic or sceptic electorate. This does not carry enough legitimacy needed when decisions are made in office after the elections have passed and highlights a major area of democratic debate.

The other factor related to the insufficient environment for democratic elections is the lack of a public sphere of discourse. This is the opportunity that is provided for citizens to participate in the process of election campaigns and debate. There is a severe lack of this opportunity due to the fact that the institutions and inter-election period is carried out elsewhere. Some might become disenchanted because they feel disconnected; others may not be motivated to actively participate due to the insufficient media coverage and apathy. This problem of distance implies that an organisation like that of the European Union, which is supranational in structure, must rely on member states to involve and either fully commit to the European community or resign to a half completed democratic institution because a common theme with these issues of democratic illegitimacy is based on the notion that nation states are reluctant to hand over certain significant powers. This shows us that there is an incomplete system in operation because certain features needed to ensure a sufficiently democratic environment are not in place due to hesitation and issues of sovereignty.

Member states may continue to act at the European level in terms of protecting their own sovereignty and maintaining a conduct of politics whereby the nation state is the predominant actor. This would have major implications for the advancement of the European Union and its democratic credibility. It is argued that the Union cannot fully claim proper democratic qualities until member states fully commit. However, there is another option to consider. The claim that legitimacy can be secured by means of continuing and refining elections through territorial forms of legitimacy has value because even though the aspect of lacking powers available to representatives. At least they would have more creditability and political significance to attempt to resolve their incapability’s with more vigour. This is connected with the fact that the European institutions are traditional lacking representative qualities in favour of appointing structures based on the participation of experts. This implies that while there may be a well informed and efficient expert working on policy within the European Union; they are not held to account to the same extent as an elected official. This tells us that the elitist set up of certain institutions in the European Union and measures used such as informal decisions potentially helps to shroud the organisation in secrecy and ambiguity.

This all points to the theme that the EU is not trusted or relied upon enough to hand over certain important powers affecting sovereignty, which could potentially affect citizens of a country such as Ireland when voting on a constitution for a Union they may not necessarily have much faith in. However, one could argue that the unwillingness to commit on the behalf of member states is the route of the democratic deficit. One could plausibly see that two main themes affecting the democratic creditability of the EU include the sheer size and bureaucracy required to maintain an effective and efficient system whilst using proper democratic channels. The other is the unwillingness of nation states to surrender certain degrees of sovereignty in order to enrich the democratic creditability.

Overall the EU does not have the luxury of being a historically ingrained and reputable political organisation. Therefore it is obliged to prove its legitimacy through excellent performance. This is difficult for the EU to achieve because the underlying theme of reluctance to hand over national sovereignty on key issues. This would not be so bad if citizens from member states had access to a enriched public sphere of debate and a more active and engaging elections campaign period. However, the hesitation in not committing to a fully involved supranational organisation has resulted in a situation where normal democratic values such as fundamental checks on the executive by the parliament are not applied. The Irish rejection seems to correlate the view that they are unwilling, like many other European citizens, to allow more power cast over them from a potentially undemocratic venture.

It is certainly a positive thing that referendums and much time is spent on such crucial matters, however it could be argued that the feasibility of having such a large bureaucratic supranational political structure without sacrificing certain democratic values for practical reasons. The lack of a public sphere for discourse tells us that the legitimacy of decisions made after the election period has less value. The lack of attention that important press releases receive in the mass media often result in the electorate failing to be informed with the important facts. In conclusion, the evidence suggests an underlying theme that the Irish rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon highlights democracy is not, in fact, alive and well in the European Union due to a number of factors concerning the legitimacy and accountability of the institution itself, resulting in reluctance to commit and therefore the only option is to be satisfied with a half finished, democratically lacking system focussed on the use of experts instead of properly elected representatives, who have had to chance to sufficiently consolidate their office through democratically satisfactory  election criteria.


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  2. BBC News, (bbc.co.uk/world/Europe). ‘MPs Consider Fallout from EU Vote’, (2008).
  3. Smyth, J. ‘Cowen confirms new Lisbon referendum after EU deal’, Irish Times article, www.irishtimes.com/newspaper, (2008).
  4. Eriksen, O E. ‘Decision-Making Void of Democratic Qualities? An Evaluation of the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy’, (2008).
  5. Eriksen, O E. & Fossum, E F. ‘Organization theory, public administration, democratic governance’, (2008).
  6. Stie, A E. ‘The European Democratic Challenge’, (2008).
  7. Menéndez, A J. ‘Reconstituting European Democracy’, (2008).
  8. Olsen, J P. & Crum, B. 'Tailoring Representative Democracy to the European Union: Does the European Constitution Reduce the Democratic Deficit?', European Law Journal, 11/4, (2007).
  9. 'Democratic Legitimacy in the EU', Journal of European Integration,29/3, (2007).
  10.  Schmidt, V. ‘Democracy in Europe: the EU and national politics’, OUP, (2006).
  11. Schmitter, P. ‘How to democratize the European Union... and why bother?’,Rowman and Littlefield, (2000).
  12. Warleigh, A. ‘Democracy and the European Union: theory, practice, and reform, Sage Publications, (2003).
  13. Bijsmans, P. & Altides, C. ‘Bridging the Gap’ between EU Politics and Citizens? The European Commission, National Media and EU Affairs in the Public Sphere’, Journal of European Integration, 29/3, (2007).

[1]‘ Irish Vote Not a Done Deal’

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