Lisbon Treaty referendum
Irish business lobbies weigh in on Lisbon Treaty
Published: Wednesday 26 August 2009
Business lobbies large and small will ramp up their campaigns for an Irish 'yes' vote in the October referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but left-wing critics say this might prove that the text is a pro-business charter.
The Lisbon Treaty, which reforms how European political institutions operate, requires ratification by all 27 EU member states. The majority of countries can pass the treaty into law by parliamentary vote. However, the Irish constitution requires a referendum for all European treaties.
Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum in June 2008 (EurActiv 13/06/08), effectively stalling the reforms contained in the treaty and causing widespread consternation among European politicians.
Since the treaty's rejection, a large-scale operation has been underway at political level to mount a stronger campaign for the second referendum on the text, to be held on 2 October. This culminated in European leaders agreeing legally-binding assurances which guarantee that Dublin will retain control in key areas of taxation, military neutrality, workers' rights and ethical issues (EurActiv 19/6/09).
During the first referendum, the government and mainstream opposition parties - along with business and farming groups - publicly supported Lisbon, but the campaign has since been criticised for failing to sell the positive aspects of the treaty to the public.
A survey of 300 Irish CEOs published in July revealed that 84% believe last year's rejection of Lisbon damaged the country's international reputation. The poll also found that 98% of business leaders felt the EU had been good for Irish business, with this figure rising to 100% in companies with more than 50% (EurActiv 28/7/09).
Opinion polls show a majority of voters appear to support Lisbon this time around, although both sides insist there is all to play for ahead of the October vote.
SME groups are expected to add their weight to a debate which has already seen Intel Ireland launch a high-profile campaign for a 'yes' vote. Intel says the treaty is good for multinationals in Ireland and will boost job creation.
The Irish Small and Medium Business Association (ISME) is to circulate an information leaflet on the Lisbon Treaty to its members and will come out publicly in early September to voice its support.
However, ISME Chief Executive Mark Fielding added that most small-business owners are focused on surviving the crisis rather than spending time debating the future of Europe. He called on the Irish government to emphasise the positive aspects of the treaty to the electorate.
Last month, the Small Firms Association (SFA) urged its members to support the 'yes' campaign, arguing that Ireland's economic problems mean a strong Europe is more important than ever.
SFA Chairman Aidan O'Boyle said the Treaty is "a good deal for Ireland and a good deal for small business".
Irish employers' group IBEC, which represents larger companies, will again be pushing for a 'yes' vote having run a high-profile campaign last year, warning that businesses in Ireland would pay a price for rejecting the treaty.
Intel's arrival in the public debate has injected considerable life into the early stages of the contest. The company says it plans to spend "a few hundred thousand euros" underlining the importance of the vote to businesses.
The move was highlighted by pro-Lisbon commentators as evidence that multinationals have confidence in the guarantees given by EU leaders relating to Ireland being in control of its corporate tax rates.
However, others say the interference of Intel, the American Chamber of Commerce and the European Commission in an Irish constitutional referendum is unhelpful.
The Commission representation in Dublin caused a minor furore over the weekend when it published a stinging rebuttal of arguments put forward by an anti-Lisbon farming group.
Campaigners on the 'no' side of the debate are arguing that the Lisbon Treaty is pro-industry and has the backing of big business as well as of outside political groups backed by Brussels and Washington.
During the run up to the last Lisbon Treaty referendum, Declan Ganley's Libertas group was among the leading voices campaigning against the treaty. This time, an alliance of left-leaning groups populate the anti-Lisbon side, leading to greater discussion of how workers will fare under the document.
Some 16 groups of socialists and peace campaigners have come together to campaign against privatisation of public services and increased military spending. A spokesperson for the Campaign Against the EU Constitution said there would be less division between the anti-Lisbon groups this time now that Libertas was not involved.
Irish Socialist MEP Joe Higgins, who sits with the European United Left group in the European Parliament, has said the EU is a pro-business political entity.
"The Lisbon Treaty enshrines as the norm the running of essential public services for profit, including health and education. If it is passed, the EU Commission would uphold the right of big business to profit from public services, over and above the rights of workers to take action to defend these services."
"Likewise, it would intervene to prevent even a mildly progressive government from investing to improve public services as this in their view 'distorts the market'. This is a profoundly undemocratic document, which seeks to turn right-wing economic policies into the only show in town, and this at a time when the neo-liberal policies of privatisation and liberalisation have directly led to a catastrophic collapse in the living standards and conditions of working people."
Aidan O’Boyle, chairman of the Small Firms Association, said Europe has been good for Ireland and Lisbon will help the EU run more smoothly.
"We joined Europe to do business and to create an Irish society which could provide jobs, business opportunities and new markets. Our achievements have been remarkable and Ireland has demonstrated that small states can make a difference within the Union," he said.
IBEC Director of European Affairs Brendan Butler said: "An unhelpful question mark hangs over Ireland's relationship with the EU. An agreement by EU leaders this week is a vital first step towards taking that question mark away. The confusion created by last year's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty should be of profound concern to anyone who wishes to see Ireland have a strong place in Europe and the world."
"The EU is a safe harbour in the midst of global economic turmoil. The scale of the global economic crisis has highlighted our vulnerability and the need for a strong Europe so we can together face shared challenges. It is vital we now focus on restoring our reputation abroad and reviving the economy."
General Manager of Intel Ireland Jim O'Hara told a news conference that it was important for business to speak out and say that Lisbon is essential for growth and jobs.
"If for the third time in less than ten years we reject an EU treaty, we must realise this will create uncertainty in the minds of investors," O'Hara said, referring to Ireland's two votes on the Nice treaty, an earlier EU accord which also failed to pass the first time around.
Brendan Young, of the Campaign Against the EU Constitution, said big business groups are pro-Treaty because they see opportunities in the liberalisation of the health, education and energy sectors.
"I can't see how small operators will have much to gain. It's really the big players who stand to make large profits in the privatisation of public services. I think quite a few of these [SME groups] have been rolled along in the general push to get Lisbon passed," he said.
Young was also critical of Intel's claims that the Treaty will advance workers' rights as the company does not currently negotiate with unions at its Irish plants.
"Workers are not sure which way to jump. They are anxious about their jobs, particularly as other multinationals such as Dell have recently announced plans to move to Poland to cut costs."
Paul Duffy, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland, said the Lisbon Treaty would bring investment and economic security.
"The American Chamber is advocating a 'yes' vote in the Lisbon Treaty because we believe it is in Ireland's economic and social interests to do so. There is nothing to fear from this treaty. At a time when our focus must be on the retention and creation of jobs, Ireland as a full member of the Union will be better positioned to create the conditions for innovation, entrepreneurship and employment creation."
Roger Cole, chairman of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, is quoted by the Irish Times as saying it is unfair that wealthy companies can spend unlimited amounts of money on referendum campaigns.
Ireland's Standards In Public Office Commission has called for changes to the law which would apply legislation on campaign funding restrictions to individuals and companies.