The Lisbon Treaty – why the Irish should vote ‘yes’

by | Sep 4, 2009

Over at Slugger O Toole, I have an essay in a series on the Irish Lisbon referendum. My conclusion: we need a ‘yes’ vote so that the EU can begin the process of turning itself into a platform for managing global risks. There’ll be further contributions every day between now and the vote next month.

When I was in Dublin on the eve of the first Lisbon referendum, a taxi driver explained his reasons for voting ‘no’. “Ireland got a great deal from Europe in the past,” he said. “Now we have to make sure we get as much, or more, from Brussels in the future”.

Can the EU continue to deliver dividends over the next thirty or so years? I think it can. But only if its energy is focused on managing the long-term and highly complex global risks that now govern the fate of European citizens.

Europe’s leaders may not like to admit it to their voters, but they are finding themselves increasingly impotent in the face of forces that cannot be controlled at national level. 9/11 and last year’s economic meltdown made a mockery of domestic political programmes. They will not be the last global emergencies to shake the foundations of even the most powerful and prosperous countries.

The drivers of instability are well-known. We are in the midst of a fundamental change in the way people associate with each other, as vast global networks cut across the nation state. Destructive technologies are also proliferating fast, making war cheaper to wage, and more expensive to deter and prevent.

Population growth, meanwhile, is concentrated in some of the world’s least stable countries. The world will have 1.5 billion more people by 2030, almost all of whom will live in the fragile towns and cities of the developing world. Resource limits – energy, water, food, land, atmospheric ‘space’ for emissions – are beginning to bite, and will increasingly drive conflict between and within nations.

Today’s global challenge recalls the predicament facing the European continent at the beginning of the 20th century. Then, the first period of globalization came to a swift and unexpected end. It took two world wars, and the intervening depression, to put the world back on its feet. The European Union was a response to this devastating failure, fulfilling Churchill’s vision of “a kind of United States of Europe” structured to allow its citizens to “dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom”.

Now we need the European Union to act once again as a platform for achieving security and prosperity – but with its efforts focused on managing risks that lie as much outside its borders as within. In theory, Europe’s experience of pooling sovereignty should make it a leader in navigating turbulent waters ahead. In practice, of course, its lack of coherent leadership means it punches well below its weight on the global stage.

This, then, is the significance of the Lisbon Treaty and why – for all its many imperfections – I hope the Irish people vote ‘yes’. Lisbon’s most important reforms will begin to sort out Europe’s ability to interact with and influence the rest of world.

The treaty’s new institutional arrangements should enable European countries to caucus more effectively and present a unified position on the great issues of our age. This will provide a basis for rebuilding the transatlantic relationship and, then, for coming to some kind of agreement with China, India and the other rising powers.

A ‘no’ vote, in contrast, will lead to yet another round of navel gazing, at a time when European countries desperately need to devote their energies to building a global system capable of taking us through the 21st century without too many major catastrophes.

If the Lisbon Treaty is finally approved, however, Europe’s elites should not forget how close they have taken the Union to the brink. As the EU’s global responsibilities increase, it must focus on key priorities, pushing all other business back to national and local levels.

Leaders must also do a much better job of explaining to people like my Dublin taxi driver why Europeans have little choice but to band together when faced by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global terrorism, a changing climate, or competition for natural resources.

To do that, they will have to direct at least some of their attention away from short term squabbles tailored to an increasingly frenetic media cycle, in order to create a vision of the great challenges the next generation is destined to face.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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