This article was published in the
Times on 9 October 2008.
Much to French President Sarkozy’s evident frustration,
the Irish are stalling for time. By the time the European Council meets in Brussels next week four months will have passed since Ireland’s referendum blocked the ratification of
treaty. Those four months have been almost entirely wasted.
beleaguered government made great play of mounting yet another survey of public
opinion to find out why the naysayers won. In fact this poll, conducted by
Millward Brown IMS, added very little to what close observers of the referendum
campaign, supplemented by Eurobarometer polls, already knew. IMS began their
survey in July, by which time a certain sobering up had taken place. The most
interesting feature of the IMS inquiry is that as many as 20 per cent of the
862,415 people who voted No were ready to concede that the result had weakened
Ireland’s position. Much now rests on the political evolution of that chastened
20 per cent.
A considerable factor determining the outcome of the
referendum was the constant bickering during the campaign among the five
pro-European political parties. That bickering has since descended into open
warfare, with spokesmen from the opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties
calling on the government to demand substantive changes to the Treaty before a
second referendum is held. Only now has agreement been reached to set up a new
cross-party parliamentary committee to consider Ireland’s treaty options in a more
considered way. Recriminations have also taken place within the government
itself, putting more pressure on Taoiseach Brian Cowen to save his own skin
first and the Lisbon
treaty only second.
Mr Cowen and his finance minister, Brian Lenihan, missed
a good opportunity in September to appeal to their EU counterparts for urgent
help in shoring up Ireland’s
fragile banking system. On the assumption that such an appeal would have been
met with a quick, coordinated and constructive response from Brussels
and Frankfurt, the Irish people would have
been given an impressive demonstration of the EU’s mission and value. Instead the
opted for panicky unilateral measures, ignoring EU state aid constraints, by
offering full state guarantees for the total liabilities of Irish banks,
estimated at €400 bn. Thus Ireland
established a new EU low for beggar-thy-neighbour policies. In addition to
sending the wrong signals back home, this performance hardly instils confidence
elsewhere in the EU about the capability of the Irish government to do the
right thing by Europe.
Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to have a collective
decision by the European Council in December about the fate of the Lisbon treaty. The
special committee of the Oireachtas (the Irish houses of parliament) will try
to build a new consensus between the parties by the end of November. Irish
foreign minister Micheal Martin promises MEPs a definitive roadmap at that
stage. Mr Cowen will have to build on that pledge next week when he meets his
fellow heads of government, and should also include a commitment to running a
more professional pro-treaty campaign than last time.
So far at least, the coalition of the 26 member states
which have ratified or intend to ratify remains intact, rendered even more
solid in the teeth of the financial maelstrom. One supposes that the banking
crisis will lead directly to more harmonised supervision and a toughened
regulatory framework at the federal EU level. Peter Mandelson’s astonishing
reincarnation as a member of the British cabinet should also kick-start the
debate about sterling’s eventual membership of the euro. Things could even get
better, on the European front at least, for Gordon Brown.
Yet all hangs on whether the attempt to rescue the Lisbon treaty is
successful or not. As a first step, Ireland’s partners should make it
crystal clear that there can be no renegotiation of the treaty. They can even
spell out unofficially the elements of the concessions they are preparing
themselves to make at their next meeting in December in a bid to win the Irish
electorate around. The main elements in that package are already fairly clear:
interpretative declarations galore – but no protocols that would need
ratification by other member states, Irish withdrawal from the European Defence
Agency, and, most difficult to swallow, an agreement to postpone the eventual
reduction of the size of the Commission sine die (or at least until
On their side, the European Council, Commission and
Parliament should ready themselves to make an emotional appeal to the Irish
people’s legendary good nature. European solidarity matters in these uncertain
times. But the EU institutions should also begin to dramatise the seriousness
of the consequences for Ireland
and for the rest of Europe if the Irish fail
to change their mind. Certainly, the Irish are unlikely to change their mind
unless they understand that the consequences of not doing so are indeed
Yet here lies a risk. One possible scenario, in the event
of a second No, consists of a multiple opt-out, semi-detached but still viable
EU membership for Ireland.
The danger is that such semi-detachment might be just the thing that appeals to
the Irish, who would then again vote No to the Lisbon treaty. If, on the other hand, an
alternative scenario threatens a more complete exclusion of Ireland from the EU, Ireland’s
voters will be likely to react very badly not only by refusing to leave the
Union but also by rejecting Lisbon
again – leaving them, and everyone else, stuck with the present discredited
Treaty of Nice.
The Nice option is preferred by the British Conservative
party. At its annual conference last month, David Cameron, the leader, and
William Hague, shadow foreign secretary, made their position crystal clear.
They expect to get back into government in spring 2010. If Lisbon
is not in place by then – in other words, if Ireland
has failed to change its mind – the Tories will hold a referendum in the UK which will,
without much doubt, bury the treaty for ever. If Lisbon
is in force by then, the Tories will insist on a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of
EU membership, pitched at multiple opt-out semi-detachment.
There is a most unfortunate precedent for a British
renegotiation. In 1976, the then Labour government sought to overthrow the
original terms of membership which had been negotiated by a Conservative
government and confirmed, just one year beforehand, by a referendum. Labour’s
renegotiation was ill-conceived and badly handled by foreign secretary David
Owen. Nationalistic sentiment was fired up by the tabloid press at home, and
many enemies were made abroad. Then, in 1979, came Mrs Thatcher – and the rest
(more or less) is history.
Back to the future, and what in 2010 would be acceptable
to a europhobic Britain
could also be irresistible for a nationalistic Ireland. The puzzle for Mr Cowen
and his party, therefore, is how to avoid being forced into a post-colonial,
mid-Atlanticist pact with the British Tories. We have not got long before we
find out what his answer is.
Copyright The Financial Times
Andrew Duff leads the UK Liberal Democrats
in the European Parliament. He is also member of the European Council on
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.