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Published on April 4th, 2012 | by Katharina Obermeier
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="565" caption="Posters from the last Irish EU referendum © infomatique"][/caption]   The Irish referendum on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Government in the EU (better known as the fiscal compact) has been scheduled for May 31, and already the campaigning and speculation is starting. I happened to be in Dublin just a week before the last Irish referendum on an EU treaty, and I remember being struck by the bold assertions on posters and flyers made by both the advocates and opponents of the Lisbon Treaty. From what I could see, the campaigning was fierce, and marked above all by hyperbolic threats – ranging from the idea that Ireland’s unemployment would rise if it didn’t ratify the Treaty, to the fear that the Treaty would establish an EU army – and little understanding of the actual provisions in the Treaty or its implications for the Irish people. So maybe it’s not surprising that the first question that came to my mind when I heard of the Irish referendum on the EU fiscal compact was: is a national referendum really the best medium for voting on an EU treaty? In the EU, there are several different levels of government on which laws and treaties can be approved or rejected. There is the Council, made up of national ministers representing their respective countries, the European Parliament, representing the European citizenry as a whole, national parliaments, elected by their constituents, and, of course, the citizens of an EU member state, who can vote through a referendum. Each of them can claim some type of legitimacy to vote on EU matters, but the real question is exactly how much democratic legitimacy is necessary to approve a treaty like the fiscal compact. On the one end of the spectrum, there are the (democratically elected) finance ministers of the EU member states, who are probably in the best position to judge the merits and weaknesses of any fiscal strategy developed at EU level, but who by nature represent the somewhat narrow interests and mentality of national governments, which may not even have the approval of the majority of their citizens. On the opposite end, there are the citizens of the EU member states, who obviously constitute the highest standard of democratic legitimacy, but whose understanding of the treaty on which they are voting could be impeded by the aggressive spreading of misinformation and a lack of knowledge about the fundamental economic and political processes involved. The European Parliament has the advantage of being a truly “European” institution in that its members can represent their constituents while at the same time be free of the constraints of national interests. However, not only is it questionable whether it is an appropriate venue to approve a treaty which would strengthen the power of European institutions over national governments, it is also probably impossible in this case, as the treaty was not signed by all 27 member states and therefore is not part of regular EU law which is subject to Parliament approval. That leaves only national parliaments as potential referees on this type of treaty. Democratically elected but also well-placed to understand the implications of an EU treaty on national budgets, national parliaments offer a forum for debate, which can be, and often is, influenced by activism in civil society, without being hijacked by hyperbole and misinformation campaigns. Having the Irish Dáil vote on the fiscal compact would allow for a nationally framed discussion, which could calm fears of a political overreach by the EU, satisfy principles of democratic legitimacy (unless one does not consider elected officials legitimate, in which case the entire model of representative democracy becomes meaningless), and avoid a situation where many people vote on a treaty about which they know very little.

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Who Should Vote on the EU Fiscal Compact?

Posters from the last Irish EU referendum © infomatique

 

The Irish referendum on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Government in the EU (better known as the fiscal compact) has been scheduled for May 31, and already the campaigning and speculation is starting.

I happened to be in Dublin just a week before the last Irish referendum on an EU treaty, and I remember being struck by the bold assertions on posters and flyers made by both the advocates and opponents of the Lisbon Treaty. From what I could see, the campaigning was fierce, and marked above all by hyperbolic threats – ranging from the idea that Ireland’s unemployment would rise if it didn’t ratify the Treaty, to the fear that the Treaty would establish an EU army – and little understanding of the actual provisions in the Treaty or its implications for the Irish people.

So maybe it’s not surprising that the first question that came to my mind when I heard of the Irish referendum on the EU fiscal compact was: is a national referendum really the best medium for voting on an EU treaty?

In the EU, there are several different levels of government on which laws and treaties can be approved or rejected. There is the Council, made up of national ministers representing their respective countries, the European Parliament, representing the European citizenry as a whole, national parliaments, elected by their constituents, and, of course, the citizens of an EU member state, who can vote through a referendum. Each of them can claim some type of legitimacy to vote on EU matters, but the real question is exactly how much democratic legitimacy is necessary to approve a treaty like the fiscal compact. On the one end of the spectrum, there are the (democratically elected) finance ministers of the EU member states, who are probably in the best position to judge the merits and weaknesses of any fiscal strategy developed at EU level, but who by nature represent the somewhat narrow interests and mentality of national governments, which may not even have the approval of the majority of their citizens. On the opposite end, there are the citizens of the EU member states, who obviously constitute the highest standard of democratic legitimacy, but whose understanding of the treaty on which they are voting could be impeded by the aggressive spreading of misinformation and a lack of knowledge about the fundamental economic and political processes involved. The European Parliament has the advantage of being a truly “European” institution in that its members can represent their constituents while at the same time be free of the constraints of national interests. However, not only is it questionable whether it is an appropriate venue to approve a treaty which would strengthen the power of European institutions over national governments, it is also probably impossible in this case, as the treaty was not signed by all 27 member states and therefore is not part of regular EU law which is subject to Parliament approval.

That leaves only national parliaments as potential referees on this type of treaty. Democratically elected but also well-placed to understand the implications of an EU treaty on national budgets, national parliaments offer a forum for debate, which can be, and often is, influenced by activism in civil society, without being hijacked by hyperbole and misinformation campaigns. Having the Irish Dáil vote on the fiscal compact would allow for a nationally framed discussion, which could calm fears of a political overreach by the EU, satisfy principles of democratic legitimacy (unless one does not consider elected officials legitimate, in which case the entire model of representative democracy becomes meaningless), and avoid a situation where many people vote on a treaty about which they know very little.

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About the Author

Katharina Obermeier

Katharina considers herself a German-Canadian hybrid. She grew up in Germany and completed her BA in International Relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Politics, especially in relation to concepts of nationality, have always fascinated her, and she is particularly interested in international political economy. During her studies, she was an avid participant at Model United Nations conferences, and helped welcome international exchange students to her university. She is currently completing an internship at a Brussels-based trade association and hopes to work in European affairs in the future. In her political writing, Katharina marries social democratic principles with a keen interest in the European Union and its implications for European politics and identity. She writes to counteract simplistic ideas about politics and economics, continuously attempting to expose the nuances and complexities involved in these subjects.



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