Lisbon clause could provide for permanent commissioner

Tue, Jun 17, 2008, 01:00

COMMISSION:Ireland could lose its permanent EU commissioner as early as next year under the Nice Treaty, writes Jamie Smyth

THE REFERENDUM campaign on the Lisbon Treaty threw up plenty of fears about how Europe is developing but surprisingly few specifics on what was wrong with the treaty.

This makes it very difficult for EU officials to find specific concessions they could offer the Government to help persuade it to hold a second referendum.

But one issue that was highlighted during the referendum campaign as a major concern was that Ireland would not get the right to appoint a representative to the European Commission for every five-year term.

The No campaign, highlighting the work of previous Irish commissioners, argued this would damage Irish influence.

Charlie McCreevy's record in defending Ireland's interests on the issue of harmonisation of the corporate tax base around the commission table speaks for itself. His predecessors also regularly donned "the green jersey" - as former EU commissioner Padraig Flynn described the practice - to defend Irish interests in Europe.

The Lisbon Treaty proposes to reduce the size of the European Commission so that every EU state can nominate a commissioner for only two out of every three terms from 2014.

Under an equal rotation system embedded in the treaty, Ireland would get the right to appoint a member to the EU executive for 10 of the subsequent 15 years - exactly the same length of time as Germany, France or any other memberstate. The size of the commission would fall to 18 members, down from the 27 that currently sit on the legislative body.

EU officials have pinpointed the issue of representation at the commission as one part of the Lisbon Treaty that could possibly be renegotiated by states to offer a concession to the Irish public in a second referendum.

Many small states would probably support the Irish in their efforts to expand the size of the commission, which is an important institution because it initiates most EU law and takes states to court for badly implementing laws.

Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb said yesterday in Luxembourg that a solution that provided a commissioner for every EU state "would strike a chord with Finland". Other small memberstates such as Portugal may also support a move by Ireland to reopen the question regarding the size of the commission.

But big member-states such as Germany and France were the main proponents of a smaller commission when the Treaty of Nice was drawn up in 2001. They argued that future EU enlargement would make the working of the commission unwieldy and negotiated a provision in the Nice Treaty to reduce the size of the commission.

The Irish public held a second referendum in November 2003 to ratify Nice, which stated that when the number of EU states reached 27 the number of commissioners must be reduced to below that number.

This means that the next commission due to be appointed in 2009 will legally have to be composed of less than 27 members unless the Nice Treaty is amended and so ratified by all 27 member-state parliaments.

Nice does not state explicitly how this reduction should be achieved but leaves it up to EU leaders to make a final decision on this.

One German diplomat joked yesterday that Ireland may voluntarily agree to forfeit its commissioner in 2009 to solve any bickering that would emerge later this year when EU leaders have to discuss how to comply with the terms of the Nice Treaty.

But most diplomats expect the system under Nice to be implemented in the same way as Lisbon, which would reduce the number of the commissioners to 18 with the principle of equal rotation.

But unlike the Nice Treaty the draft Lisbon Treaty includes a specific clause that enables EU leaders to agree via a unanimous decision to block the reduction in the size of the commission. It is this specific article in the draft treaty that some EU diplomats believe could provide an innovative solution that would give Ireland the right to a permanent commissioner and a viable argument to hold a second referendum on the treaty.

Under this plan EU leaders would agree unanimously at the EU leaders' summit in October or December to implement this provision of the Lisbon Treaty if all memberstates ratify the text and the treaty comes into effect. Ireland could then market this achievement to the public in a second referendum along with declarations and protocols stipulating that Irish sovereignty over tax, abortion and military matters is maintained.

It is not yet known if this would be enough to justify a second vote in Ireland. It is also not clear if big states such as Germany and France would agree to retain permanent commissioners considering this could expand the college of commissioners past 30 members in the years to come. But it could perhaps be one solution to the current impasse.