Ireland’s creative destruction

With an Irish “No” to Lisbon, others should continue the ratification process and European leaders keep focus on how to make the EU an effective global player

It’s deja vu all over again”, as the U.S baseball player Yogi Berra said. With low turn-out and with an energetic “No” campaign, Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, much like they rejected the Nice Treaty seven years ago. European leaders must think hard about ways to salvage the foreign policy ideas in the Treaty.

The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty will pose a considerable headache for Europe’s leaders, who negotiated the accord after the rejection of the European Constitution by French and Dutch voters. Even though things are not as dire as they were in 2001 – when the Nice Treaty was seen as necessary for the Union’s expansion- the Irish vote is likely to hobble the EU for a time. The French EU Presidency, which starts in July, would be focused entirely on the issue, as would that of the Czech Republic. Real business is likely to be pushed aside and a new bout of Euro-pessimism could set in.

To keep all options open, the remaining eight countries that have yet to ratify the Lisbon Treaty should do so. This does not amount to ignoring the Irish, but keeps the door open for a number of different solutions and respects the democratic will of those countries who have ratified the treaty (however they have chosen to do so).

If it turns out that the Lisbon Treaty, however amended and with whatever concession offered to Ireland, is dead, European leaders should ensure that one of the main ideas behind the Treaty – to make the EU a more effective foreign policy player – is saved.  

The treaty is the product of an EU institutional reform process which stretches back to 2001. In 2001, the EU states declared that the recently concluded Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001) Treaties still left the EU with an inadequate institutional framework. Foreign policy was seen as a key deficiency and in the Lisbon Treaty a number of ideas survived from the Constitutional Convention, including a permanent President of the Council, an EU Foreign Minister (EUHR) in all but name and the eponymously-named External Action Service (EAS).

The prominence given to external affairs in the Treaty led some people to argue that it would provide a new narrative for the EU, one that puts the onus not only domestic matters, but on Europe’s international responsibilities. David Miliband, Britain’s chief diplomat, talks of a “Global Europe” and eighty-eight percent of Europeans agree that the EU should take greater responsibility for dealing with global threats.

But a global outlook for Europe is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of necessity. The EU-27 are a group of medium-sized countries with a time-bound, out-sized influence in the world. Unless the EU finds ways to collaborate more effectively, Europe’s influence and power in the world will decline.  This will have repercussions not only for Europeans but for others too. Europe is, and will remain for many years, the staunchest supporter of the norms and rules upon which a progressive multilateral system rests.

For this reason, European leaders should think about ways of improving the Union’s foreign policy instruments. Many of the necessary changes could probably be created without the Treaty and through Council and Commission decisions. Commission chief José Manuel Barroso introduced the concept of several Vice-Presidents of the Commission. Lawyers need to find out whether he could appoint the High Representative for CSFP as the RELEX Commissioner and a Vice-President? Even though the External Action Service was created in the Treaty, what is to stop a double-hating of every staff member in RELEX and the Council Secretariat? Lawyers need to find out.

Other ideas (that were not in the Treaty) include appointing a high-level Climate Envoy; establishing a Climate Embassy in California; double-hatting the EU counter-terrorism ‘czar’ as a Deputy High Representative for CSFP so as to give the portfolio an external dimension and staff; setting-up a network of Security and Justice Attaches in select EU delegations to work on security assistance; and so on.

The Irish voters have to be respected, but the EU must find a way to accommodate this respect with equal amounts of respect for the clear will in many other countries for the Lisbon Treaty and the EU’s machinery to improve. The best way to do so is for those countries who have not yet ratified the Lisbon Treaty to do so. If worse comes to worse, European leaders should ensure that there is no let up in efforts to make the EU a more effective foreign policy player.

In Krieg und Kapitalismus Werner Sombart, a German economist, wrote “again out of destruction a new spirit of creativity arises”. Let us hope that this is what happens when EU leaders meet to discus the Irish referendum.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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