Days of serious negotiations brought about carefully worded statement

Wed, Jun 4, 2008, 01:00

An open breach over Lisbon was of no benefit to either side, writes Stephen Collins, Political Editor

THE AGREEMENT between Taoiseach Brian Cowen and IFA president Pádraig Walshe yesterday morning on a formula of words to cover the Government's bottom-line position on the WTO talks came as a huge relief to both sides.

An open breach on the Lisbon Treaty between the Government and the leading farming organisation in the country was in the interests of neither. It would have represented a serious setback for the Yes campaign while the IFA would have been left stranded on the wrong side of the argument.

The wording of the statement the Taoiseach issued yesterday was the result of days of serious talking between the backroom teams on both sides.

The key figures in those talks were John Callinan, assistant secretary in the Taoiseach's Department, and Michael Berkery, the general secretary of the IFA.

The sticking point between the two sides was the precise nature of the statement the Taoiseach was prepared to make about the use of Ireland's veto to block EU agreement to a WTO deal. The IFA had been demanding for some time that the Government should make a public statement saying it would veto the deal in its current format.

The Taoiseach and his top Ministers had been resisting such a statement on the basis that the deal is far from finalised and that other countries such as Germany and Hungary will in all likelihood ensure that the outcome is significantly different.

The Government position as outlined by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, on May 26th after his first EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels was that Ireland continued to have very serious concerns about the latest proposals tabled at the WTO negotiations.

The Minister said at that stage that "the very clear imbalance in the present set of proposals makes them unacceptable to Ireland and to others. If it is to be acceptable, a WTO agreement must not undermine our agricultural interests. A WTO deal must deliver real benefit to Europe and to developing countries." In the previous weeks Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith expressed similar concerns and said he would continue to build alliances with like-minded member states to secure an outcome to the WTO agreement that did not damage European agriculture and would protect Irish agricultural interests.

Speaking after a Council of Ministers meeting on May 19th, Mr Smith emphasised the need for a balanced agreement. "An agreement that places the agriculture pillar out front in the negotiations, and delivers few if any tangible benefits on industrial products and services, would be unacceptable to Ireland and to many of our EU partners," he said.

However, both Mr Smith and Mr Martin avoided using the word veto, despite the insistence of the IFA that a commitment to use it was a precondition of support for the Lisbon Treaty. Pádraig Walshe caused consternation in Government circles when he appeared to threaten support for a No vote if Mr Cowen did not commit himself to a veto.

Then last Sunday Mr Cowen met the smaller farming organisation the ICMSA and gave an assurance that the Government would not accept a WTO deal that was "unbalanced".

Mr Cowen reaffirmed that unanimity - and therefore Ireland's consent - was required for EU approval of the outcome of the current WTO negotiations, which meant that Ireland retained the capacity to block EU agreement to any unacceptable deal emerging.

This coded reference to the veto was enough to get the ICMSA on side and the organisation came out in favour of a Yes vote. However, the IFA continued to insist on a more direct reference and yesterday Mr Cowen obliged by saying that unanimity was required for EU approval of the WTO and, therefore, Ireland could veto EU agreement to an unacceptable deal.

"The Taoiseach assured the IFA that he was prepared to use the veto if a deal that is unacceptable to Ireland is put to a vote," said Mr Cowen in a statement. It was enough to get the IFA to follow the example of the ICMSA and endorse the Yes campaign.

The IFA said the Taoiseach's statement was what it had been seeking all along, but Government sources insisted that it was a much more nuanced commitment than the blanket pledge to use the veto which had been sought.

Although Mr Cowen's statement was widely portrayed in the media as a rowback, the anti-Lisbon group Libertas described the IFA stance as a "last-minute U-turn".