Yesterday, the Irish voted to preserve democracy in Europe for a little longer. By a margin of over 100,000 votes, Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, which would have significantly altered the structure of the European Union (EU). The three major parties of Ireland all backed the treaty, but voters didn’t care.

There are differences of opinion about just what the treaty would have done, and why voters rejected it, but here’s a quick summary. Backers of the treaty point out that the structure of the European Union hasn’t changed as it should have to stay viable as it continued to grow and add more and more member states from Eastern Europe. Currently, the EU has a bit of a confusing structure, with an executive branch called the European Commission which has a President of the Commission; the European Parliament, which is one half of the legislative branch and has a President of the European Parliament; and the Council of the European Union, which is the other half of the legislative branch and has a President of the Council of the European Union (sometimes just called the EU Presidency) which rotates between member states every six months. The EU Presidency is not really assumed by an individual but by the entire national government which has the presidency for that half-year.

This sometimes weak and convoluted structure was felt by many to be limiting the EU’s ability to deal with economic threats such as an exploding Chinese economy, and unable to effectively deal with issues closer to home such as the war in Bosnia. In light of this, leaders of the member states have been working for years to radically change the structure of the EU.

The Treaty of Nice was negotiated in 2001 and meant to be a European constitution that would replace all other treaties that had been negotiated over the years, but the treaty was never ratified because it was rejected by voters in both France and The Netherlands. So, the Lisbon Treaty was, in effect, a second try but this treaty would simply amend earlier treaties rather than replace them. To get around those pesky voters who might have once again rejected this new treaty, 26 of the 27 member states decided to ratify the treaty through their legislatures rather than with a vote of the people. But the treaty needed ratification by all 27 members, and what would the 27th state, Ireland, do? Ireland sent the voters a referendum, and the voters made it clear yesterday they wanted nothing to do with the treaty.

After the Irish rejected the treaty yesterday, there was outrage among many European leaders who couldn’t believe that the whole thing would be derailed by a vote of a country with less than 2% of the population of Europe. Apparently, for them, the solution would have been not to enlarge the democratic process so more citizens voted, but rather to eliminate the only vote of the people that actually took place. And many of those other European leaders are expressing their hope that somehow the “No” vote can be “made right.” In effect, they’re asking for the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Brian Cowan, who vehemently supported the treaty, to find some way to ignore the voters. This is being held up by opponents of the treaty as evidence that Europe never really would listen to smaller countries like Ireland, which is one reason why the Irish voters rejected it in the first place.

So, how exactly would this treaty have rolled back democracy in Europe? The treaty would have limited representation on the European Commission for each member state to 10 of every 15 years, so one-third of the time each country would have no representative on the Commission. Even when a country did have a representative on the Commission, she would not have been elected by the people, or even by the member states’ elected legislatures. Each country could “suggest” who their representative would be, but not actually choose her.

Because the treaty also contained language that would have ensured that the laws of the EU would have superseded those of any national constitution, it really would have created a structure a bit like the federal system of the U.S. but without the representative democracy we expect. Okay, used to expect before the Bush years.

It didn’t help the “Yes” campaign that the Taoiseach and many of his government ministers who were backing the treaty admitted they hadn’t read it. Its language is so confusing that one minister supporting the treaty tried at a press conference to explain to reporters how the treaty would work and gave a small snippet of the treaty language to support his claim. When pressed by reporters, though, he admitted he didn’t understand the language he’d just quoted. The Taoiseach seemed unable to grasp that opponents of the treaty could have an honest difference of opinion on the matter, declaring before the election that those vocally opposing the treaty either didn’t understand it or were misrepresenting it. I, for one, think voters did know just enough to decide they didn’t like it. No one knows for sure what will happen now that Ireland has said “No,” but we’ll keep you informed if there are any developments.