Diverse reactions – ratification process should be continued

Generally speaking, most of the Belgian political, social and economic actors were deeply disappointed with the negative result of the referendum. However some academic personalities and actors from the civil society argued it was a good thing for European democracy, as the result is likely to create a debate involving the citizens.
 
Political leaders in Belgium were saddened with the negative result. Some claimed, such as Ivo Belet (Belgian MEP – Christian Democrat) that the Irish people were not well enough informed and a bit frustrated, and that attention should be given to the reasons of the rejection.[1] The Minister for Foreign Affairs (Karel De Gucht) and the Secretary of State for European Affairs (Olivier Chastel) noted that the situation should not be (over-) dramatized and that we should not heap criticism on Ireland.[2] Yves Leterme, the Belgian Prime Minister, insisted on the complexity and the heterogeneity of the reasons explaining the ‘No’ vote. According to him, ‘Europe’ has become evident over time and the citizens became accustomed to the EU. European leaders should insist more on the benefits, particularly in Ireland that has benefited heavily from the European integration and structural funds. Moreover, he noted that national political leaders should take their responsibility in public management in national debates: Europe should not always be presented as responsible for all the gaps and damages caused by neo-liberalism.[3]
 
As far as proposals from the political officials are concerned, mainstream actors claimed Ireland should be granted some time for reflection but the ratification process should continue.[4] They expect the other countries to ratify the Lisbon Treaty before 2009. The Flemish Greens (“Groen!”) argued that the reasons of the vote should be carefully analyzed so that the leaders could find a political agreement. Ivo Belet (Belgian MEP – Christian Democrat) thinks that a Plan-B, an alternative is needed, such as a declaration for a new referendum.[5]
 
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Karel De Gucht, also supports the idea of a continuation of the ratification process. A new referendum should take place, like with the Nice Treaty, because there is a consensus on the necessity to reform the EU.[6] He also made some concrete proposals. The first deals with the composition of the European Commission. He recommended that it remained composed of 27 members: 18 full effective Commissioners and nine members without voting right. He thinks that this should reassure Ireland of its influence on the decision making process.[7] That proposal had already been made by the Convention at the time of the European Constitution. The second proposal is the addition of a protocol on abortion, neutrality and defence policies but in his opinion, no change in the text itself should occur.[8]
 
The Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, supports this view. Indeed, according to him, the ratification process should be pursued to send the signal that the other 26 member states want the Lisbon Treaty to be adopted and that Ireland cannot block the whole European Union. No renegotiation should take place. Finally, the idea of a ‘two-speed Europe’ was not supported: if some member states take only the advantages without the costs of the integration, the Belgian Prime Minister argued that it is hard to stand in a long-term perspective.[9]
 
The media extensively covered the referendum and its consequences. Before the referendum took place, some newspapers warned that a positive answer should not be taken for granted. After the result, the press mainly highlighted the heterogeneity of the reasons behind the ‘No’ vote, ranging ideologically from the left to the right.[10] The newspapers also noted that the current political strategy in the EU is, on the one hand, to isolate Ireland through the continuation of the ratification process and on the other hand, to make the rejection less dramatic.[11] The proposals discussed in the press were rather diverse, ranging from a second referendum, an isolation of Ireland to a ‘two-speed Europe’ with the old EU as ‘avant-garde’.[12] Some journalists also stated that what the EU really needs is new ideas and projects to create support and enthusiasm from citizens.[13]
 
Finally, the academic world was nuanced but rather divided. On the one hand, some such as Professor Hendrik Vos from Gent University affirmed that the treaty was a compromise and that another chance should be given to Ireland, perhaps with a declaration on its neutrality in defence policy. But he also stressed that because of this crisis, the EU remains blocked in institutional and constitutional debates and hence it is not able to focus on concrete problems faced by the citizens.[14]
 
On the other hand, some academic and social groups claimed that Ireland should not vote again on the same text because the rejection was a clear signal to the European leaders. Sophie Heine from Université libre de Bruxelles claimed that the EU needs a reorientation on both its form and its content in the sense of gaining more democracy. The 2009 European elections are seen as a solution to create a global and in-depth debate for a new treaty.[15]
 
We can thus conclude that the reactions as well as the proposals after the ‘No’ vote were diverse in Belgium, although people were disappointed and generally favour a continuation of the ratification process.
 
Short-term and long-term implications for the integration process
 
Although many proposals were discussed, the short-term and long-term implications for the integration process were not much debated in the Belgian public sphere.
 
For the Prime Minister, the question of the implications on future enlargement is to a large degree purely hypothetical and is not a source of anxiety. The continuation of the ratification process is the most important element for the moment.[16]
 
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Karel De Gucht, raised the question of the use of referenda on European matters: he argued that people generally answer the wrong question.[17]
 
He was not the only one to raise these kinds of questions. Indeed, some newspapers claimed that the referendum is a rather unwise mechanism and that people usually do not understand what is at stake. In the Irish case, the negative result was not seen as a pure protest against a lack of democracy. The reasons of the treaty rejection in Ireland were too diverse and seemed like a collective ’letting off steam’ rather than a real protest against the Lisbon Treaty itself. So, it was often claimed in the newspapers that the mechanisms of representative democracy should prevail on European affairs: parliamentary ratification is as democratic as a referendum.[18] However two positive implications were noted. Firstly, the Irish vote emphasized the growing distance between the EU and its citizens and political leaders should take that signal into account for the future.[19] The second implication is that the officials were forced to adopt another stance than after the French and the Dutch ‘No’.[20] The gap between citizens and elites is becoming obvious and cannot be denied anymore. Moreover, another period of reflection is not possible and another ‘mini-treaty’ or ‘simplified treaty’ is not feasible either. Finally, the EU is now expected to answer everyday concerns of its citizens, such as their purchasing power.
 



[1] See De Morgen, 13/06/08, available under: www.demorgen.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[2] See Le Soir, 16/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[3] See Le Soir, 19/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[4] See Le Soir, 16/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[5] See De Morgen, 13/06/08, available under: www.demorgen.be (last access: 22/07/2008).
[6] Ibid.

[7] See Le Soir, 16/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[8] See De Morgen, 16/06/08, available under: www.demorgen.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[9] See Le Soir, 19/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[10] See Le Soir, 13/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[11] See ibid.; Le Soir, 20/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[12] See Le Vif l’express, 16/06/08, available under: www.levif.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[13] See Le Soir, 20/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[14] See Knack, 18/06/08, available under: www.knack.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[15] See Le Soir, 21/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[16] See De Morgen, 20/06/08, available under: www.demorgen.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[17] See Le Soir, 20/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[18] See ibid.; Le Soir, 14/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[19] See La Libre Belgique, 13/04/08, 14/06/08, available under: www.lalibre.be (last access: 22/07/2008); Le Soir, 13/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).

[20] See Le Soir, 20/06/08, 21/06/08, available under: www.lesoir.be (last access: 22/07/2008).