What an Irish No would mean for Europe

A second rejection of the Lisbon Treaty would shunt Europe into a constitutional impasse

This piece originally appeared in the Financial Times on 24 September 2009.  

On October 2 the people of Ireland will
vote for a second time
in a referendum to determine the fate of the Lisbon
Treaty. Most voters will naturally focus on the consequences of a Yes or No for
Yet, while Brussels
looks on nervously, we might do well to reflect on the repercussions of an
Irish No for the European Union as a whole. Here are some of them.

First off, there would be the mother of all constitutional stalemates. The
EU last managed to revise a treaty as long ago as 2000, in the form of the
unloved Treaty of Nice. Since then we have had attempts at the draft
constitution of 2003, the constitutional treaty of 2004 and the Lisbon treaty in 2007 – now, in 2009, adorned with legal
guarantees for Ireland,
plus the promise of an Irish member of the European Commission for eternity.

If Ireland
were to say No, there would be absolutely no appetite to reopen the
well-thumbed treaty dossier. The result of another round of constitutional
talks would surely be worse than the last. The decisions enshrined in Lisbon
which shift the balance of power between the institutions and among the states
were difficult enough to arrive at in the first place: they would become even
trickier.The financial and economic crisis has tested the arrangements for
economic and monetary union and found them wanting. Any new intergovernmental
conference to amend the treaties would be bound to open up the terms of the Maastricht treaty (1991)
in addition to those of Nice. The discord would be magnificent to behold. So
there will be no second renegotiation of Lisbon.
A second Irish No would shunt Europe into a
constitutional impasse.

EU politics would become shockingly complicated. Lisbon
is the first project of the newly enlarged Union
of 27 member states: its failure would tarnish the reputation of that
enlargement. All future enlargement after Croatia would be forced off the
agenda. Even Iceland could
not be certain to join as its own sceptical public opinion is unlikely to be
attracted by a Brussels
in constitutional paralysis.

The Western Balkans if denied a route into the EU could succumb to criminal
disorder and ethnic conflict. A Turkey
whose EU bid had been rejected would be bound to make overtures to Russia, Iran
and Syria,
none of whose governments are well disposed towards the EU. Europe’s
reputation in the Muslim world would slump again. Cyprus would remain the torn island
it is, emitting insecurity. The hope of building a genuine common EU security
and defence policy to come to the aid of a languishing Nato would be dashed.
Without Lisbon, with fewer ties to bind them
together, one can be sure that France
would want to pursue its own interests in the Mediterranean, as Germany would with Russia,
and Britain with the US.

In the wider world, the EU without Lisbon
would carry the stigma of failure. Europe’s loss of global credibility would
leave China and America largely
to their own devices. Any remaining impetus to finish the WTO’s Doha Round would disappear. The Copenhagen climate change
negotiations would have to make do without confident European leadership and,
inevitably, without a generous EU contribution to finance the adaptation
efforts of the less developed world.

At home, Lisbon’s
defeat would shatter the EU’s hopes of improving its system of government. There
could be no streamlining of procedures or rationalisation of instruments, no
codification either of important case law of the European Court of Justice or
of modern ways of getting the institutions to work well together. The EU’s
values and principles would remain opaque and its objectives unclear. The
Charter of Fundamental Rights would stay a mere code of conduct without being
legally binding, and the EU would not be allowed to sign up to the historic
European Convention of Human Rights.

The European Parliament, without Lisbon, would remain only half built, being
cheated of its long-sought and badly needed extension of legislative and
budgetary powers. MEPs would lose their extra grip on the election and scrutiny
of the Commission, and would have to forgo their prospective greater say on
foreign affairs and international treaties.

Other democratic improvements, too, simply could not happen: the Council of
Ministers would continue to pass laws in secret; the Commission would not have
increased powers to enforce compliance with EU law; there would be no right for
citizens to petition for new legislation; the European Council of the heads of
government would remain without the scope of judicial review and would lose its
proposed stable presidency; the right of access to the Court of Justice would
remain too narrow; and civil society, including the churches, would be deprived
of being better informed and consulted. National parliaments would be left out
in the cold, losing their Lisbon
right to interrupt EU legislation.

Both the scope of the EU’s activities and its capacity to act effectively
would be badly dished by the ultimate fall of the Lisbon treaty. The Union’s federal character
would remain indistinct, the residual rights of member states ill defined, and
the catalogue of competencies conferred on the Union
suppressed. One could expect growing conflict between national courts and the
Court of Justice. States would lose the right to negotiate secession from the Union. The European Parliament would not gain the right
to initiate future treaty amendments. Flexible ways of revising the treaties
would be lost, making it necessary always to resort to the ponderous (and
clearly dysfunctional) constraint that everyone has to agree to everything,
however trivial, before reform can happen.

In practical terms, the whole area of justice and interior affairs would
remain in the hands of national governments, whose efforts so far to reach
common positions on sensitive issues concerning asylum and immigration, or police
and judicial cooperation, have proven weak and indecisive. New legal bases to
allow the EU to develop common policies in intellectual property rights, space,
sport, tourism, civil protection and public administration would be lost.
Notable, too would be the loss of expanding EU competence to energy supply, as
well as demand, and to positive climate change measures, rather than mere
pollution control.

If Ireland scuppers Lisbon, there will at once be talk of forming core groups
of federally-minded states (excluding Ireland) to press forward the
European project. However desirable such differentiated integration may be, the
Treaty of Nice does not lend itself to variable geometry, and core groups are
actually prohibited in the area where they would matter most, namely foreign,
security and defence policy. So any new attempt, post-Lisbon, to relaunch a
federal Europe would take place haphazardly
outside the framework of the EU.

The fate of the Treaty of Lisbon at the hands of the Irish matters very
much. Once Ireland has
spoken, we will know whether Europe is to be a
united democracy or not. 

Andrew Duff MEP is president of the Union of European Federalists and a council member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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