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Vice-President of the European Commission
Exchange of views with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micháel
Martin, at the Constitutional Affairs Committee
Mr. President, Dear Minister,
I think what you expect from me today is (1) To say how we read the results of the surveys (2) To see how we move from there and (3) To draw some lessons from what has happened. These are the 3 points on which I will elaborate.
The outcomes of the Eurobarometer study and of the survey launched by the Irish Government largely coincide. Therefore, I do not need to repeat what the Minister said. I will try to sum up my thinking in 6 points:
The referendum was not about Ireland's membership in the EU. The Irish people remain strongly pro-European.
The referendum was very little related to the Lisbon Treaty. Taxation, Irish neutrality, abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia dominated the campaign even if these issues - certainly important per se - were not directly related to the Treaty.
The main reason for the NO vote and for the abstentions was a lack of information and understanding of what the Treaty is about. 46% of abstainees mentioned lack of knowledge or the high complexity of the Treaty as the main reason for staying away.
The notion of "lack of understanding" alone does not capture the reality. The No vote was perceived as a "risk-free" option. The "NO" voters largely believed that their vote would allow the Irish government to negotiate exceptions for Ireland.
The concerns about the negative economic outlook and the employment have influenced voter decisions. Discussions on the WTO negotiations, workers rights, the consequences of recent judgements of the Court of Justice also oriented the choices of the voters.
Finally, young people were the least likely to vote, with only 3 out of 10 young adults going to the polls. Young adults were also twice as likely to vote NO as to vote YES. Similarly, women, as well as the less educated and less well-off social groups, were also more likely to abstain or vote no. This is one of the most worrying finding and I will come back to this aspect later.
This is what we know about the reasons of the vote in Ireland. The No vote in Ireland was an answer, but not a solution.
How do we move forward with reform?
We must not forget that today, 24 Member States have completed political approval for the Treaty. By the end of the year, this figure is likely to rise to 26.
The sovereign and democratic choice of 24 Member States can not be dismissed as irrelevant. I know that this is not the intention of the Irish Government. The Irish Government has always recognised and respected the clear desire of the other countries to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.
Many events of recent months have reinforced the arguments for a new Treaty.
Look at the economic situation and the financial crisis. If one thing is clear, it is the global nature of the downturn. The Georgian crisis has also shown that Europe has a large potential to be a real force for good on the global stage. But we need to have the right mechanisms in place. This calls for more Europe, not less.
It is important not to force Ireland down a particular route, to accelerate the process or to isolate Ireland. We are waiting for the report of the Irish Prime Minister to the European Council.
We are solutions-oriented and willing to know on which issues Irish society requires reassurance. Any solution has to be respectful of the position already taken by the very large majority of the Member States and acceptable to the Irish people. The Commission will work with the Government of Ireland and the Presidency – as it has being doing in the past for other cases – to find solutions that may be acceptable by all.
The decision to create a Sub-Committee on Ireland’s future in the EU is a step in the right direction. It will help shed some light on how Ireland envisages its future in the EU and to point the way to solutions.
I will now turn to my third point: which conclusions do we draw from what has happened?
The Irish "No" cannot be treated as a merely national issue or only a Treaty ratification problem. Even though ratification of a Treaty is a national affair, there are some general lessons that can be drawn on how to communicate, both on the Treaty and the EU more generally.
A more emotional no campaign worked better than a more factual yes
Not enough was done by the yes campaign to reach out to young people and women
The Internet was more extensively used by the no campaigners.
There was too little rebuttal of misinformation about the Treaty.
These are some long-term challenges that we have to face. How we deal with them? By each Institution looking alone at how to communicate? By each Members State deciding alone on its own priorities in communicating Europe?
Ever since the no votes on the Constitution in 2005, the Commission has been looking at how communication on Europe could be improved. Modernising the Commission's approach has been a central part of my work during this period, and I think we have already come a long way.
But this is not only a job for the Commission or Parliament. We need also to work together with the Member States on communicating Europe.
Unless we pool our resources and work together on this, we will see in the future more surveys showing that people do not have enough information to make fair and objective judgements about the EU's decisions.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. And perhaps the silver lining here is that Parliament, Council and the Commission are about to sign up to a political declaration that will engage all of us and the Member States to work in partnership on communicating Europe. This implies agreeing common priorities, exchanging information and planning communication activities together.
The political declaration is expected to be signed next week, in the margins of the European Council. This will mark a step change in how we do business. Effective communication, I believe, plays a central part in the EU democracy.
The challenges that we have to face in a globalised world have not disappeared with the Irish no. The clock is ticking. And as politicians we have a collective responsibility to find a way-out.
We all need to redouble our efforts and engage in the local, national and European debate. This is necessary in the aftermath of the Irish No. It's also more and more necessary in the preparation of the next key date in our political calendar, the EP elections of June 2009.
Thank you for listening to me.