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Best columns: E.U.: Picking up the pieces after Ireland votes ‘no’

Will the leaders of the European Union accept Ireland's rejection of the Treay of Lisbon or will they come up with new proposals?

What part of “no” didn’t Europe understand? said Malachi O’Doherty in Northern Ireland’s Belfast Telegraph. In Brussels last week, the leaders of the European Union’s 27 member-states huddled behind closed doors to decide how best to handle the allegedly “dreadful mistake” made a week earlier by the people of Ireland. In a national referendum, the Irish overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, the latest attempt by European bureaucrats to craft a de facto constitution for the E.U. This latest effort supposedly would simplify decision-making and give the European Parliament a larger role. Given that all E.U. treaties must be ratified unanimously, the Irish “no” vote, you might think, would be a deathblow to Lisbon, but apparently not. E.U. leaders are now working on various proposals by which the Irish can vote again on the treaty next spring. This is all very well, except it rather misses the entire point of democracy: When the people have spoken, they should be listened to.

It isn’t quite that simple, said Costas Botopoulos, a member of the European Parliament from Greece, in Belgium’s New Europe. As many critics of the Lisbon treaty have pointed out, it is hardly a model of clarity or concision—not surprising for a document spelling out in exhaustive bureaucratic jargon how 27 separate nations are going to function together as a single entity. But this raises the question of whether the Irish actually knew what they were rejecting. According to exit polls, the main reason cited by “no” voters was a “lack of information.” Given that nothing less than the future of a continent is at stake, isn’t it worth giving the Irish some time to get better informed before they make such a momentous decision?

Better still, let’s stop asking ordinary people to weigh in on the legalistic fine points of international treaties, said Dirk Kurbjuweit in Germany’s Der Spiegel. “Democracy doesn’t mean having unlimited confidence in citizens,” or putting every decision to a public vote. The system works by having the public appoint representatives—“politicians,” they’re called—to make decisions and negotiate on their constituents’ behalf. On the basic concept of European integration, the electorates of the member states have already given their approval—and no nation, incidentally, has blossomed more spectacularly since doing so than Ireland. To make more progress, we need to give up these endless referendums and let the politicians hammer out the details.

That’s “a slippery slope to go down,” said The Economist in an editorial. It goes without saying that some Irish voters may have been “muddled on referendum day,” but these are the same people who vote in national elections, and who’s to say they’re not muddled then, too? Like it or not, a certain amount of voter confusion and ignorance is inherent to the democratic system, but it’s the system we’ve got. Reasonable people can disagree about whether international treaties are proper subjects for referendums. But once such a referendum has been held, its result must be respected.

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