Member states have no appetite for treaty renegotiations

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The danger for Ireland is if a consensus emerges in Brussels to move ahead without us, writes Jamie Smyth

IRISH VOTERS plunged Europe into political crisis by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, the blueprint for reforming how the EU takes decisions and tackles global challenges.

The No vote means the treaty will not now enter force on January 1st, 2009, and raises the possibility of serious tensions emerging between EU states over how to reform the Union. There is also a danger that Ireland could become marginalised in Europe, particularly if big member states attempt to forge ahead and implement the reforms.

"There will be calls in the EU to ensure that a few thousand Irish voters do not hold up half a billion European citizens who want this treaty," said Antonio Missiroli, director of the Brussels-based think tank the European Policy Centre. "This creates a political crisis in Europe because it sends a message that Europe cannot agree how to reform itself."

It took eight years to negotiate the Lisbon Treaty and France, Germany and the European Commission are unlikely to agree to give up the reform package. Even Britain, one of the most Eurosceptic EU states, will continue ratifying the treaty, raising the prospect that Ireland will be the only State opposing.

Sinn Féin and Libertas campaigned for a full renegotiation of the treaty, but almost all other EU states have no appetite for further talks about institutions. Another option is to keep working under the terms of the existing EU treaties, which were reformed via the Nice Treaty. Some say Europe cannot function properly with the current treaties, but sensitive deals agreed on the working-time directive or the unbundling of energy networks show tough decisions can be taken under the current arrangements.

But the real danger for Ireland is if a consensus emerges among other EU states that they cannot give up the Lisbon reforms. French European affairs minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet said ratification should continue and signalled that the reforms could be salvaged. "We would have to see with the Irish at the end of the ratification process how we could make it work and what legal arrangement we could come to," he said.

This mirrors comments by senior German MEPs such as chairman of the European parliament's constitutional affairs committee Jo Leinen and socialist leader Martin Schultz.

Lisbon cannot be legally implemented without the Irish on board, but there are legal mechanisms that could enable the other 26 states to move ahead with the reforms while leaving the Republic as a semi-detached member of the EU. For example, when Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, EU legal experts devised a method of moving ahead with the reforms in Maastricht themselves. This was never used as Copenhagen subsequently won a second referendum after negotiating opt-outs from many EU policies.

A deliberate strategy to sideline Ireland would be politically difficult and could create huge tensions at EU level. But there certainly could be pressure from some states for the Government to consider holding a second referendum on the treaty - or a version of it with specific opt-outs for Ireland - given the relatively low turnout in yesterday's vote.

For Brian Cowen, yesterday's defeat represents a serious setback for his own standing in Europe. Next Thursday and Friday he will attend his first EU leaders' summit in Brussels as Taoiseach where he will be expected to explain what went wrong and how Ireland intends to fix the political mess Europe is in.

The leaders of the EU's big three - France, Germany and Britain - all have different reasons to be unhappy. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is the first victim of an Irish No vote.

He had grand ambitions for his six-month presidency of the EU, which begins in July. The crisis created by the Irish No will ensnare his presidency in institutional wrangling.

German chancellor Angela Merkel was the architect of the Lisbon Treaty and Germany was the big winner from the shake-up of the voting system at the council of ministers.

British prime minister Gordon Brown, whose steering of Lisbon through the British parliament is one of his few success stories, now faces a Eurosceptic backlash. He will also face calls in coming days to halt ratification of the treaty.

Cowen will find it difficult to cement personal relationships at the "EU club of leaders" after a result that causes huge problems for so many of his EU partners.

Ireland could also suffer from a loss of influence. Perhaps the best example of the damage that a No vote can have on a country's position is the French Non to the EU constitution in May 2005.

Former French European affairs minister Pierre Moscovici told The Irish Times bluntly in an interview last year: "President Jacques Chirac lost all credibility on the European stage because of the French rejection, which was also addressed to him," he said. "France had disappeared from European radars since the referendum."

The real fear is that Irish diplomatic initiatives, ideas and arguments will be ignored at the Council of Ministers. Big policy issues, such as reform of the common agricultural policy and the harmonisation of the corporate tax base across the EU, come up for discussion this autumn. There are fears in Brussels among Irish officials that the No to Lisbon will hurt their negotiating position.

"For a country of 4.2 million people, Ireland wields considerable influence in Brussels," says Hugo Brady at the Centre for European Reform. "You can't really quantify political goodwill, but there is no doubt that fellow Europeans' image of Ireland as positive Europeans will be reduced . . . it will do us no favours at the negotiating table." Two No votes in EU referendums in the past seven years (we voted down the Nice Treaty in 2001 before ratifying it 18 months later) will also damage the "pro-EU" brand that has been nurtured by Ireland over the past 35 years.

New member states that joined the Union in 2004 have looked to Ireland as a role model to follow in their relationship with the EU. Similarly, business will fear that saying No to Lisbon sends a negative message to potential inward investors about Ireland's future in Europe.

There is no doubt the next 12 months will prove crucial to Ireland and the EU.