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Nice Referendum: Lies of Yes defeat incoherence of No

Joe Craig

21st October 2002

The Nice Treaty has been passed by a majority of 62.89% against 37.11% on a 49.47% turnout.  This compares with a No majority of 53.87% against 46.13% in the  referendum last year in which there was a 34.79% turnout.  The No vote remained almost the same absolutely, 534,887 this year compared to 529,478 in last year’s contest.  Essentially just over 18% of the electorate voted No in both referenda but the Yes vote increased with the rise in turnout.

A collective sigh of relief could be heard all over the corridors of power in Europe although it is more questionable how much attention was paid by the forces of the European left.  While Socialist Democracy characterised the first vote as a setback for the capitalist class but not a step forward for the workers, this vote must be seen as a step forward for the capitalist class and setback for the working class.

The ‘Irish Times’ Brussels correspondent recorded the European reaction under the headline ‘Emphatic result restores Irish status as EU’s favourite child’ (what a revealing description) as the Irish establishment patted itself on the back. By far the stupidest comment however came from that part of the establishment known as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  Des Geraghty of SIPTU stated that the ‘resounding vote clears the way’ for the crucial political debate ‘about what kind of Europe we want;’ and here’s the rest of us thinking that’s what we have just had.

It might be comforting for the No campaign(s) to consider that parties that gain no more than 20% of the vote at elections won almost double this in the referenda, but this would be an exercise in delusion even if it highlights the inability of the present political framework to allow full expression of peoples’ views.

What lessons are to be drawn from the result?  Why did the Yes campaign win this time? In our view there are two answers.

In the first referendum there was hardly a Yes campaign at all.  This time the whole establishment rallied to the cause.  Fianna Fail spent €60,000 in the first campaign but increased this to a budget of €500,000 in the second; IBEC, the bosses’ organisation mounted an unprecedented campaign costing €500,000; Fine Gael spent €150,000: the PD’s €125,000 and the Labour Party €25,000.  The Irish Farmers Association was estimated to have spent €150,000 and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce €100,000.  Multinationals based in International Financial Services Centre including Deutsche International, Dresdner Bank, Barings and Bank of Ireland put up its own campaign costing €25,000.  The Irish Congress of Trade Unions had its own Yes campaign, paid for by individual unions, and without any attempt to consult its members.

All in all the ‘Irish Times’ estimated that the Yes campaign spent €1.68 million compared to the No side’s €170,500.  In fact the difference is probably greater since a further €5 million is estimated to have been spent and most of this by Yes supporters.  The government made sure that the referendum commission was no longer responsible for putting both sides of the debate and its material was often seen as biased towards the Yes side.  This was most certainly true of the media.  The Catholic bishops also recommended a Yes vote as did numerous European figures choreographed by the Yes campaign.  Controversially IDA Chief Executive Sean Dorgan, in effect a government civil servant, spoke out early in favour of a Yes vote.


For Marxists there is no point complaining about this imbalance in resources or that the whole establishment united behind Nice in a series of threats and insults.  It’s what we would expect on any fundamental issue.  We have always known that our strength has rested in our numbers and in our arguments.  Since we are all too aware that our numbers are pitifully small our arguments must be strong and convincing.  Only through these can our numbers increase.

The problem with the No campaign was precisely in its arguments.  The vote was lost not just because of the disparity of resources between the campaigns but because of the incoherence and weakness of the No arguments.  This is something we can learn from.

The disparate nature of the No campaign engendered even more confusion than that which already existed.  On the No side were forces ranging from the extreme right, concerned with liberalisation of abortion rights and possibilities of increased immigration, through to the Greens, Sinn Fein and NGO type campaigns concerned with national sovereignty and neutrality.  Finally there was the left.

Almost immediately the campaign started the No campaign had to disassociate itself from the No to Nice Campaign and the National Platform fronted by Justin Barrett and Anthony Coughlan respectively.  The former was revealed as an associate of European neo-fascist movements and the latter as an apologist and fomenter of racism.  Both complained that the Irish government (along with Sweden and Denmark) was ‘reckless’ to allow Eastern European workers freedom to work in Ireland immediately after enlargement while the rest of the EU, particularly Germany and Austria, insisted on a two year ban, which can be extended to seven years.  Barrett warned of a ‘flood’ of immigrant workers acting as a ‘battering ram’ to cut the wages of Irish workers while Coughlan issued weasel statements disclaiming racism or xenophobia while calculating what percentage of the 75 million East European citizens might want to come to Ireland.

The problem which Socialist Democracy posed from the first campaign – the need to define an independent and working class campaign was immediately shown to be an absolute necessity.  The Alliance Against Nice that resulted only solved part of the problem by disassociating a large part of the campaign from the most extreme reactionary politics.  Unfortunately it included Sinn Fein and the Greens as well as the left and therefore covered up essential differences that needed to be explained if the basis for an independent working class stance was to be created.  The Alliance was more an umbrella group than a real campaign and the point of its existence, except to collectively condemn the far right, has not been explained.  Some may attempt to justify it by claiming it as a means of unity - but what sort of unity and what for?

The arguments of Ireland’s very own Red-Brown alliance were not the only problems of the No case.  On every single issue the No side was characterised by incoherence and/or evasion.  The full scale assault of the establishment witnessed a retreat by many of those claiming to be its most intransigent opponents.  Let’s run through some of the key arguments.

Arguments - Neutrality

The Yes side lied that the Treaty had no implications for Irish neutrality even while government spokesmen declared they didn’t know what it meant.  Minister of State Dick Roche said that ‘we do not have anything like an appropriate definition.’  This did not stop them claiming that the declaration by the European Council at Seville that the EU’s common foreign and security policy ‘does not prejudice its (Ireland’s) traditional policy of military neutrality’ was legally binding.  It is clear that neutrality means exactly what they want it to mean and that it is totally at the whim of what the European Council thinks it is, since their view is the declaration’s only legal basis.

The Yes side went on to claim that the amendment to the Irish constitution being voted on further protected neutrality since it outlawed a common defence policy, even while it contradicted itself by saying the amendment only made explicit what was already implicit in the constitution.  This was countered by the Greens who claimed that there was no mention of neutrality in the amendment and that while it prevents the Irish State joining a mutual defence pact, this is a very narrow definition of neutrality.  So a neutrality that allows US forces to use Shannon airport as a refuelling base in its preparations for war against Iraq is no sort of neutrality at all.

Since the Nice Treaty did not propose a mutual defence pact the amendment to the constitution saying it didn’t was a transparent piece of marketing.  What the Nice Treaty does involve, and which neither the Seville Declaration nor the amendment had anything to do with, is the setting up of a new Political and Security Committee that will supervise the new European army in the shape of the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF).   This 60,000 strong army has the authority to be employed 4,000 km from EU borders in tasks that include ‘peacemaking’ which, as even John Bruton agreed, cannot be distinguished from war-making.  This committee takes over from the WEU and presages closer collaboration between NATO and explicitly EU forces as witnessed recently in Kosova and Macedonia.  While all talk of this being a new European army were dismissed by Yes campaigners this was contradicted by another Fine Gael politician, Gay Mitchell, who, in the Dail in 2000, stated that a European army had been created through the ERRF and that it would eventually require 240,000 soldiers.

The apparent alternative put forward by the Green Party, Sinn Fein and others such as Afri (Action From Ireland) with its ‘Goodbye UN, Hello NATO poster’, is a foreign policy dictated solely by the Irish state involving no contribution to international operations except those with a UN mandate. But this is no sort of alternative at all.

The government had stated that it will only authorise Irish collaboration with ERRF actions upon agreement in the Dail and a UN mandate.  They pointed to the horror of the massacre at Srebrenicia as an example of the moral duty that would be abdicated by refusing to take part in a regional security system.  Since however the Srebrenicia debacle was a UN operation this was not an argument that could honestly be put forward by either side.

The Green Party and others hold up the UN as a moral alternative to the EU and NATO but the record of the UN argues otherwise.  The first Gulf War was authorised by the UN and it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that a second one could be as well.  The alternative to the first war, proposed by many, was UN sanctions but these have killed more people than the war did.  The Greens explicitly endorsed the UN’s action in East Timor whose result is a pathetic puppet state utterly subservient to western governments and multinational companies.

Not one group correctly identified what neutrality is or where it has come from.  Instead current government policy was described as removing the last vestiges of neutrality even while everyone was called upon to protect it.  In fact the Irish State’s policy of neutrality is a reflection of the dying embers of anti-imperialist consciousness that grew out of the fight against the British Empire.  For the likes of Sinn Fein to call for the defence of neutrality and national sovereignty when the current state is incapable of exercising sovereignty over its northern counties and has acquiesced, with Sinn Fein support, in robbing national self determination of legitimacy through support for the Good Friday Agreement, shows the utter confusion of the so-called radical opposition to Nice.

The prostration of Ahern in front of Bush is the result not of him having the wrong policy, but of the Irish state’s utter subordination to imperialism, expressed both economically and politically.  To talk of a tiny nation such as Ireland exercising real independence in a world dominated by political and economic forces that dwarf it is to live in a parallel universe.  That’s why the alternative for Irish workers is not a national one but an international one.  This weakness is appreciated by Irish workers in lots of ways that don’t (obviously) involve a Marxist understanding of the world but this appreciation means they have little faith in strategies that promise nationalist solutions.

The only alternative both to the dying neutrality policy and increasing incorporation into European imperialism is an anti-imperialist policy and solidarity with working class movements around the world.  Like so much else of the socialist alternative the left failed to argue for this or to explain what it would mean.  In fact they, along with the Greens etc, capitulated to the arguments of the right.


We can see this in the No response to a central argument of the Yes campaign.  This was that the Nice Treaty was necessary for enlargement.  Of course this was a lie, but that is not the point.  No part of the No campaign challenged enlargement in the first place.  In fact they fell over one another supporting enlargement.  The Yes side had a field day exposing the contradictions of anti-EU campaigners suddenly supporting others joining a club they don’t think should exist.  They laughed at those who demanded the same conditions for new applicants which applied to Ireland when it joined, but who condemned these same conditions at the time.  This was true not just of the far right of the No forces such as Coughlan but of the left including the Socialist Workers Party.  The newly formed Independent Socialist Forum disclaimed the idea that Eastern European workers will get a Celtic Tiger boom and demanded that they ‘should be allowed to join with at least the same rights as we got in.’  Where has opposition to the EU as an institution gone?  How does that leave the Yes side argument that No campaigners eventually support the Yes case – just 30 years late.

Such disorientation was reflected in the arguments made about Ireland’s loss of an EU Commissioner and of the increase in qualified majority voting.  Again such arguments were not confined to the right or to the Greens and Sinn Fein.  For the left, what does it matter if one of the Commissioners does not hold an Irish passport?  The whole institution of the Commission is an affront to democracy as well as being a cess pit of corruption so rife they all had to resign in 1998.

The complaint of a two-speed Europe, with up to eight being allowed to accelerate integration, is married to objections about the loss of the national veto in around 30 new policy areas.  But why then should one country, say Ireland, be allowed to stop the wishes of eight others?   The increase in Qualified Majority voting means that the three largest countries can block progress, but why complain about this when you want only one country to be able to do it?  Why should the left complain about an increase in the weighted votes given to the largest countries in the Council of Ministers when this still leaves small population countries relatively over-represented, with Ireland still having a vote five times that of Germany relative to population?

What should be the voting arrangements?  Should there exist a veto on all policies?  Unless there was a total critique of the EU as an institution the left was duty bound to answer these questions but it was either not able, or not prepared, to do so in its campaign against the Treaty.  Even an overall alternative to the EU would have to say whether voting at the highest level should be based on population or on national vetoes or on some other bias towards national communities.

The Yes campaign made much of its concern for the poor people of Eastern Europe with Labour’s Ruairi Quinn even comparing the No campaign to an attempt to build a new Berlin Wall.  This really is contemptible, the fortress Europe that the EU is creating and which was further advanced at the recent Seville summit, where threats were made against countries through which immigrants pass, have killed at least 2,000 people between 1993 and 2000, eight times that of the deaths resulting from the Berlin Wall during its whole history.  This fake concern for the population of Eastern Europe may have looked plausible against the xenophobic and nationalist opposition of some No campaigners but it was rank hypocrisy.  The applicant countries have complained about the delay in their joining the EU and of the conditions imposed on their membership which have been more concerned to assure the conditions of foreign investment than the conditions of the population.

Far from the Nice Treaty unifying Europe it further divides Europe creating a new Berlin Wall around a different border where the object is to keep the poor out rather than keep people in.  The alternative is not to say that one favours enlargement, but to echo Patricia McKenna’s call for free movement of people and to call for a united Europe of all of its peoples – from the Urals to the Atlantic.

The Economy

The major argument of the Yes campaign was not about enlargement or about neutrality but a series of threats about the economy that made politically explicit the domination of the country by multinational capitalism.  Since no section of the No campaign had any alternative to this domination, not excluding the left, the Yes campaign had a clear field.

The chairman of IDA Ireland, John Dunne, stated that ‘If we turn down Nice I have no doubt that the long-term effects would be very negative…Such a vote would cut us out from the mainstream of Europe.’  The president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland, Bernard Collins argued  ‘There is no doubt that a second rejection of Nice has the potential to marginalise Ireland within Europe and this could impact on future investment decisions being taken by US companies.’  Paul McGowan, chairman of KPMG’s Irish tax practice and a leading light of the IFSC Yes campaign, argued that a No vote would endanger the low corporate tax rates that have been approved by the rest of the EU and on which the Irish state is so dependant for attracting foreign investment.

The No side complained that this aspect of the Yes campaign was a form of bullying and intimidation.  But of course it was.  Only naive liberals believe that the arguments of reality have no place in arguments over reality.  The dependence of the Irish state on multinational capital is a reality.  The dependence of this investment on low taxes and safe entry into EU markets is also a reality as is the threat to this posed by possible EU tax harmonisation.

The alternative to this is not to deny these facts or to essentially claim that there is room for manoeuvre in how the Irish State relates to the EU, which is beside the point.  All this represents an acceptance of multinational domination and it shone through in the No campaign.  The worst example was the assertion from Coughlan that actually tried to turn the argument round: that a Yes vote threatened low corporate taxes more than a No vote.  Some No campaigners pointed to the examples of Britain and Sweden which have remained out of the Euro currency yet have strong foreign investment flows: the former being the second most popular destination in the world and the latter doubling its share of EU inward investment since 1999.  The point of course is that not everyone can have this level of ‘success’ and the experience in both these countries, including Sweden, is of a reduction in worker’s rights and living standards.

The rest of the No campaign was not much better.  The Greens and Sinn Fein didn’t answer the argument and certainly never intimated that they had any alternative to multinational dominance.  But if there is no alternative to economic subordination then there is no alternative to political subordination either, through the EU or otherwise.

The left stood in exactly the same position.  They refused to deal with the question and simply avoided it.  They realised that they had a problem so simply pleaded that a No vote would not mean the end of the EU, not mean economic ruin and would not stop enlargement (SWP).  What this also meant was that the point of voting No was very much reduced and that there was no alternative being put forward.  In effect the No campaign ended up being a campaign for the status quo not a vision of an entirely new Europe.  No mention was made of taking on multinational domination and how this might be done and no mention of a possible alternative to the EU in a United Socialist States of Europe or how this might be argued for in a European Constituent Assembly.

The left concentrated on the effect of Nice in forwarding the privatisation agenda through article 133 of the Treaty, which talks of ‘the achievement of uniformity in measures of liberalisation.’  This allows secret negotiations by the European Commission without even the consultative role for the European Parliament which had existed, imposition of agreements irrespective of national government objections and subordination to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which is unelected, unaccountable and whose decisions are irreversible.  This process will be pursued in the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) negotiations currently going through the WTO which will see privatisation pushed in areas traditionally dominated by state provision such as utilities, health and education.  It was perfectly correct to highlight all this, but the left cannot oppose future neoliberal policies without giving an alternative to the current neoliberal economy.


Once again the Irish Congress of Trade Unions showed that their fundamental role in society is not to represent the interests of workers but to represent the interests of capital within the workers movement.  They energetically called for a Yes vote with no attempt to pretend they had consulted their membership.

Their central argument was that the EU represents the only progressive alternative to the United States.  Apparently the EU defends a social model of environmental sustainability against a largely American inspired globalisation model based on laissez faire capitalism and shareholder values.  The only other alternative was to allow the ‘Americanisation of Europe.’ The No campaigners had a ‘poor little Ireland mentality’ and suffered from ‘insular nationalism’

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.  ICTU has stood in the way of fighting for union rights in US multinationals while at the same time claiming that ‘If anyone seriously thinks that Ireland, with our extraordinary dependence on US investment, can seriously challenge the values of US global capital on our own, they are not living in the real world.’  In effect ICTU says we should fight for EU global capital against US global capital while doing everything in its power to support the Irish state making Irish workers amenable to US multinational’s exploitation.

ICTU rubbished opposition to article 133 by claiming that the power to privatise remained with national governments, wilfully ignoring the powers that will be given to the EU and WTO who want to push forward privatisation.  Anyway, if national governments are responsible for privatisation why is ICTU in partnership with a government that has pushed it forward?

The central argument of ICTU, that the EU is a more progressive social model than the US is simply false.  The greater rights that workers have in Europe are the result of the stronger workers movements that have historically existed there.  These gains are under attack and have been for some time.  The EU and Nice Treaty are one means for this attack.  It will succeed if workers continue to be led by those like ICTU who are in partnership with the government, institutions and bosses who are leading it.  There is no European country which ICTU can point to which is a model for workers to follow.

In the past week Italian workers have taken part in a general strike to defend some measure of job security.  Even sterling examples of social democratic society have long ceased to inspire emulation.  The case of Sweden is salutary.  This year an IMF report noted that ‘Structural reforms reinforced by EU membership have helped raise efficiency and in mitigating distortions associated with Sweden’s large welfare state.’  While government expenditure remains high by international standards since 1994 it has been cut back at an unprecedented rate, falling by over 15% of GDP by 2001.  No European country has escaped the assault of neoliberalism and the EU has been a central part of the process.


What we have seen in the Nice Treaty has been a full scale offensive by the whole Irish establishment and a retreat by the opposition. Thus the left has disclaimed any intention of destroying the rich man’s club that is the EU; supported the entry of more countries into the club creating a new division of the continent behind the false banner of unity; supported and defended a bankrupt claim to neutrality and complained of changes to EU procedures when it is the whole undemocratic institution that should have been the target.  It failed to directly address the arguments stemming from multinational domination of the economy and failed to offer any alternative beyond the vaguest of formulations that mean nothing.  When concretised these alternatives have been, at the very best, incoherent.  Thus the SWP tells us that ‘The real alternative to the bosses Europe will be seen at the European Social Forum.’  When we turn to the publicity promoted by the SWP we find that prominent among the supporters of this event, and pushed to the fore by the SWP, are supporters of the Nice Treaty including Des Geraghty of SIPTU.  If Nice is part of the globalisation we must oppose how can we do it with some of the Treaty’s most prominent supporters?

This political retreat will be dismissed by many as nit picking.  They will say that it would have made no difference to the vote had the purest international socialist campaign been mounted by a united revolutionary left.  This is quite true.  But as we said before the first referendum, the left was not going to win the referendum.  The task of the left was to build a larger constituency for independent working class politics that would be stronger after the result, better prepared politically to fight the assaults that would come.

The alternative we have just witnessed: don’t worry too much about the arguments - just get out the vote, is called opportunism and will always ultimately fail despite the short term gains that sometimes accrue.  The first and second Nice referenda are striking proof of this.  The left needed not just to differentiate itself from the far right No campaigners but from the nationalist and reformist component of the campaign.  It didn’t need to throw in bad arguments with the good ones.  Socialists are above all internationalists but this could only get lost in a united campaign with the likes of Sinn Fein etc.

To sum up: we (the left) could not have won this campaign but we could have built for the future.  We can do so now by recognising the political retreat made on a number of issues and start a real debate on what our socialist alternative is.  Already we are being told that a new referendum on Europe may be on the way as soon as 2004.  A battle has been lost, the war is not over.



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