Salvage operation

Whatever the reasons for the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, the result is devastating for the EU both internally and externally

This article was orginally published in the Financial Times on 17 June 2008.

Nobody who knows Irish politics can have been truly
surprised by Ireland’s
rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. There are many causes. Ireland is a
place where nationalist identity is strong. Its post-colonial relationship with
the UK
is inevitably complicated. Less obvious is its love-hate affair with the US
Although the Irish republican cause relied on US support, Sinn Féin is the
fiercest defender of Irish ‘neutrality’ vis-à-vis Nato (and Anglo-US
imperialism). Meanwhile, the Irish Right has borrowed the language (and money)
of American neo-conservatism in the belief that a strong European Union
imperils Nato and the transatlantic partnership.

Former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald complains that the
Irish are too courteous to mention their disgust at corruption in high places.
They are also too polite to speak openly about their hostility to immigration,
mainly from other EU countries. Both factors played their part in turning
voters against the Dublin
political establishment and hence against the Lisbon Treaty.

The pro-Lisbon political parties ran a poor campaign:
late, fractious and lacking in verve. At no time during the campaign were the
true consequences for Ireland
and Europe of a No vote starkly spelled out.

Whatever the reasons, the result is devastating for the
EU both internally and externally. It has stalled in a dramatic way the efforts
of the EU, going back several years, to settle its constitutional future. Above
all, it is a setback for the growth of European parliamentary democracy. Plans
to make the governance of the Union more
efficient and transparent are lost. And the EU will not, after all, enjoy the
greater role in international affairs that was prescribed by Lisbon. Global leadership in climate change
will be hard to assert. Progress in building common policies in justice and
interior affairs, including asylum and immigration, will be negligible.
Enlargement of the membership of the EU beyond Croatia is now impossible.

Assertions from Berlin
and Paris that the Irish No is an Irish problem
that needs to be resolved in Ireland
are unhelpful. The Irish establishment has been badly, if deservedly dished; it
will take a long time to recover its nerve. Ireland will not be bullied into
holding another referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. If there was one common
thread running through the complaints of the nay-sayers it was that the Brussels juggernaut
sweeps all before it regardless of democratic decisions. That typical
eurosceptic sentiment is shared widely elsewhere, especially in Britain, and it
would be hugely aggravated by a decision of the leaders of the larger states or
the EU institutions to carry on regardless.

In legal terms, Ireland’s No is just as important
as a Yes from its 26 partners. Every EU government has fixed itself with
superglue to its veto rights on treaty amendment. Even France and Germany
upheld the national veto during the treaty negotiations: it ill behooves them
now to question the validity of Ireland’s veto.

So a delicate but large-scale salvage operation is
needed. Irish prime minister Brian Cowen will not be able to bring to the
European Council on 19 June worked-out proposals for a renegotiation of the
Treaty of Lisbon that would allow him to win another referendum at home.
Non-binding declarations glued on to the back of the treaty are unlikely to
convince anyone. Binding protocols, however, would need ratification all over
again in 27 member states – a prospect that few of his fellow heads of
government are prepared to contemplate. The only concrete decision that the
European Council could take would be to declare that they will, in the event,
exercise the discretion that they have under Lisbon not to reduce the size of
the Commission in 2014. The potential loss of an Irish Commissioner mattered in
the referendum campaign – notwithstanding the fact that they stand to lose one
anyway under the Treaty of Nice as early as 2009.

rejection of a reformed and strengthened Union means that the Union
is stuck with the vastly inferior Treaty of Nice, possibly for several years to
come. Among the many weak points of Nice, the so-called ‘enhanced cooperation’
clauses do not really facilitate the creation of core groups of more
integrationist minded states – and, in any case, they preclude the formation of
a core group in the area of security and defence policy where it is so badly
needed. One can be sure that once the inadequacies of the Treaty of Nice,
signed in December 2000, get to be fully appreciated in other European
capitals, frustration with the Irish will rise.

The European Council would be wise to give Mr Cowen only
until its October meeting to come up with a clear proposal on how he wishes to
proceed. Meanwhile, every other member state has the right to make its own
choice about the Treaty of Lisbon. Most, perhaps all of those which have not
yet ratified, will wish to do so – not least in order to make a tacit objection
to some Franco-German fantasies about forming immediately a federalist core
group. The decision of the UK
to complete its parliamentary ratification of Lisbon on 18 June will go some way to restore
its moral authority and political credibility in EU circles. The other laggard
states are Belgium, Cyprus, the Czech
Republic, Italy,
the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

If the Irish veto really proves to be intractable,
however, other solutions will be found. A mini-treaty, for example, could
establish legal bases for common policies on energy supply and climate change;
and the important changes mooted by Lisbon in
the field of justice and interior affairs – from which Ireland has an
opt-out – could be reintroduced. A treaty on security and defence could be
imagined outside the EU framework, realising the greater part of Lisbon’s ambitions in this area and, naturally, excluding Ireland.
Certain other changes, such as the citizens’ initiative to propose legislation,
could probably be brought in under the terms of Nice. The longer term
constitutional settlement would have to be postponed until after 2014.

Come the autumn, it will be essential for the European
Council to act definitively on the fate of Lisbon. Nobody can brook another long and
indecisive period of reflection. For Ireland, that will be the time for
the biggest decision of all.

Andrew Duff
MEP (Liberal/UK) is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the chairman of the
Federalist Intergroup of the European Parliament.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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