Instead of bullying the Irish, Europe should be working on plan D – and E

As Britain moves to ratify the Lisbon treaty, EU politicians are wrong to threaten Ireland. We’re all in the same boat

This article originally appeared in The Guardian. 

After the Irish “no” vote, the question Europe faces is: does
Germany really want to remain in this
European Union? Yes, Germany. I write as someone who
thinks the EU needs the institutional reforms in the Lisbon treaty and regrets
that a majority of Irish voters rejected it – from a gallimaufry of motives, it
seems, some having little to do with the real content of the treaty. But I was
shocked by initial reactions from the German foreign and interior ministers, the
tone and implication of which was: silly little Irish voters, go away and come
back with the right answer, otherwise we’ll have to kick you out into the cold.
(Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested Ireland might
“clear the way for an integration of the remaining 26”.) Or we Germans, French
and other good Europeans will go ahead on our own, in a “core Europe”. The mailed fist was barely even graced with a
velvet glove.

cannot be,” said interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble, an old advocate of a core
Europe, “that a few million Irish make the
decision for 495 million Europeans.” That would be right if the EU were a direct
democracy; but it isn’t a direct democracy, or only in that lesser part of its
legitimation that flows through direct elections to the European parliament. The
EU – this EU, the only real, existing EU, the best EU we’ve got – is still
mainly an indirect democracy: meaning that each democratic member-state has to
reach its own decision in its own way. That’s time-consuming. As in a convoy, or
an extended family, everything takes longer. Slower ships and curmudgeonly
cousins must be attended to. But that’s exactly what it means to be a European
Union, not a hegemon-dominated alliance or a United States of

It’s true that, even under the
existing treaties, smaller groups of states who want to work more closely
together in particular policy areas can do so. Hence the Schengen area (without
border controls) and the eurozone. So Germany might want to suggest such an
“enhanced cooperation” grouping for, say, economic governance in the eurozone.
Fine. Go ahead. But on the EU’s central institutional arrangements and its
external relations – the two big things the Lisbon treaty tries to address – this is, as
soon as you stop to examine it, a complete non-starter. Worried about the EU
being weak and divided, you would end up making it weaker and more divided.

Tactically, in any case, this was
the worst possible way to respond. Nothing could be better calculated to ensure
that the Irish say “no” a second time – assuming their government dares to ask
them again, which it’s far from certain it will. The contrast with German
reactions to the French “no” in 2005 is striking. When the French say “no”,
Europe has a problem. When Ireland says “no”, Ireland has a
problem. There’s one law for the big and another for the

Fortunately these were just first
reactions. While frustration and private impatience remain, EU leaders,
including the wise and consensus-building German chancellor, Angela Merkel, are
now preparing to give the Irish government what it has been privately pleading
for: time and space to work out what to do next. That’s the likely spirit of the
European Council that convenes in Brussels today.

Inevitably, there’s talk of a plan
B. The truth is that Europe is now working on
plan D, and should be thinking about plan E. Let me explain. Plan A was to have
a European constitution. What came out of the constitutional covention led by
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the subsequent inter-governmental mill was already
much less: no longer a constitution, just a “constitutional treaty”, or plan B.
When France and Holland – two heartlands of a presumptive “core Europe” –
said “no” to that, European leaders regrouped and went for plan C: the still
more modest Lisbon treaty.

plan D is for the rest to go ahead and ratify, starting with Britain in the
House of Lords last night, and then for the Irish government to come to the
European Council in October with suggestions for a package they might take back
to change their voters’ minds. For example, there might be “explanatory
protocols” giving assurances on abortion, Irish neutrality, corporation tax and
anything else held to have fed Irish fears. Many Irish voters particularly
dislike the idea of losing their European commissioner, a concern shared by
other small countries. You can’t change that without changing the Lisbon treaty, which would
mean restarting the whole ratification round in 27 countries. But, ingenious
euro-sages suggest, you might craft a crafty promise of restoring one
commissioner per country, perhaps to be done, along with other revisions, as
part of the accession treaty for Croatia in around 2010. (I call this
the Croatian Gambit.) And so on.

Even if the Eurosceptic Polish and
Czech presidents don’t deliver a coup de grace to the Lisbon treaty by
engineering a second “no” (my hunch: they won’t), I would only give this plan D
a 60-40 chance of success. If I were Irish, I’d be feeling pretty cussed by now.
And if I were the Irish prime minister, I’d want to be pretty sure of winning
before I risked my political life on a second vote. So we should be thinking of
plan E as well.

Plan E has three parts. The first is
to continue working under the existing treaties. The plain fact is that the
enlarged EU of 27 is still functioning “under Nice”. It has not ground to a
halt, as some predicted.

second part is to see how many of the institutional changes that we really do
need – to make an enlarged EU work better, and be more effective in the world –
could be implemented without a new grand treaty. I’ve been asking this question
of experts on the legal-institutional workings of the EU over the past few days,
and the answer is: a surprisingly large number. I won’t bore you with the
details, which would make a Jesuit blush, but it turns out that, given ingenuity
and political will, things like a more consolidated foreign policy apparatus
with a single head could probably be made to happen anyway. Where there’s a will
there’s a way. So this would be what the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has
called “Nice plus”.

third part of plan E is the most important of all. While resolving this
decade-long institutional tangle as best we can, we would go on actually doing
things that matter to Europeans and to the world. When the new
US president is elected this
autumn, he should find in his in-tray a memo from Europe spelling out what we see as the biggest challenges
in the world and what we propose to do about them.

Plan D is the least-worst
institutional way forward for now and the Lisbon treaty is still worth having if we can
achieve it by all-round consent. But if we can’t, and if we pay attention to all
three parts of plan E, then that E could stand not just for Exhaustion but also
for Europe.

Timothy Garton Ash is a Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of European Studies at Oxford Universit.

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


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.