A British minister said today that Irish voters rejected the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in part because they did not understand it,.
Minister for Europe Caroline Flint also suggested that misunderstandings were fuelled by the campaign for a No vote in the July referendum.
Voters wrongly believed that the introduction of the Treaty – which replaces the failed EU Constitution – would mean an end to Ireland’s abortion ban or require its young people to serve in a European Army, said Ms Flint.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen secured legally-binding reassurances at last week’s European Council summit that the Treaty will not affect Dublin’s neutrality on defence or allow Brussels to interfere in Ireland’s tax and abortion policies.
In return for these guarantees, and the promise of an Irish Commissioner in Brussels, Mr Cowen is now expected to hold a second referendum in 2009.
All but four of the EU’s 27 member states have now ratified the Treaty, and the need to gain Ireland’s approval in a referendum is the last significant remaining obstacle to it entering into effect in 2010.
Opponents of the Treaty protest that the democratic decision of Irish voters is being ignored by Brussels.
But Ms Flint today suggested that, while Irish voters’ concerns were “legitimate”, the result in July was determined by misconceptions about the Treaty’s provisions.
She told Sky News’ Sunday Live: “There have been a number of studies in Ireland about how people voted and why they voted as they did.
“I visited Dublin about a month ago and met some people who told me directly that people sincerely thought – partly because of the campaign against the Treaty – that they would have their rights in a number of areas taken away, and that wasn’t the case and isn’t the case.
“If there is a way in which we can answer these questions that people had so they can feel reassured and the Irish want to have a second referendum, so be it.”
Mr Cowen explained at the Council about the “very legitimate” concerns that Irish people had – and which persuaded them to vote No – about Brussels determining their law on abortion and other issues, said Ms Flint.
“Part of it was misunderstanding,” she said. “Apparently, one-third of Irish voters in the referendum thought that Irish young men and women would be conscripted into a European Army.
“The question I think we need to look at is how do we reassure them? At the Council they agreed that they would provide some legal guidance and guarantees that the Treaty didn’t affect these areas, and Brian Cowen himself indicated that on that basis he would support a second referendum.
That’s their choice that they have made.”
Asked how Europe and the UK Government would respond if the Irish voted No a second time, Ms Flint replied: “If they vote No again, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”