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All eyes on Irish in key E.U. vote

In a referendum Thursday, voters could strike down a continent-wide treaty designed to boost Europe's clout.

By Michael SeaverCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2008

SOURCE: EU/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF


Dublin, Ireland

On Thursday, Ireland will be – for a day, at least – the most influential country in Europe, as its citizens vote on a treaty designed to streamline continent-wide cooperation on everything from climate change to international terrorism.

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Advocates hope the outcome will be more than a better-oiled bureaucracy, however. They say the Lisbon Treaty would strengthen the European Union on the world stage, giving it more leverage on important issues such as its energy policy toward Russia, which has been hamstrung by a lack of coordination for years.

In order to go into effect, the treaty must be ratified by all 27 members of the EU. Ireland alone has put the treaty up for a public referendum instead of a parliamentary vote, essentially giving Irish voters a veto over the whole process.

Yet in an ironic twist for a treaty intended to "promote the interests of its citizens on a day-to-day basis," many Irish are so befuddled by the 269 pages of what one expert calls "Eurobabble" that they don't even understand what they're voting on.

"It's impossible to read," says Maria Cahill from the law faculty at the University of Ireland in Galway. "It's a civil servant's manual rather than something the average citizen could read. Even if you do get through the text, it makes references to all of the other [EU] treaties, so it would take weeks to get a comprehensive understanding of what it's about."

But Gavin Barrett, an expert in EU law at University College's School of Law in Dublin, believes the treaty's unreadability is overstated. "In its consolidated form it is eminently readable," he says. "Even though it addresses several dozen issues and some of these are quite technical, particularly relating to the institutions."

Too much 'Eurobabble'

The treaty, meant to make the expanded EU more efficient and effective, is a redrafted version of the failed EU Constitution, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 referendums. In a recent poll, 35 percent of undecided voters and the majority of those planning on voting against it cited confusion about what the treaty means as their reason for opposing it.

To ensure clarity, the Irish government appointed an independent Referendum Commission to simplify the text of the treaty, which would give the EU a president and increase national representation. Advertisements were placed on billboards and websites, and a 16-page booklet was sent to every household clarifying the main provisions of the treaty and explaining terms like "Qualified Majority voting," "ordinary Legislative procedures," and "special Legislative procedures."

But Margaret E. Ward of Clearink, a Dublin-based company that advocates plain English in legal documents, says this obtuse language is not necessary. "In the United States, there is a whole movement towards modern legal drafting," she says. "It is possible to write clearly and not leave yourself open to legal liability." Instead, the EU uses what she calls "Eurobabble."