Financial crisis only temporary reprieve from treaty dilemma

 

The No vote is still the first thing everyone thinks of when it comes to the Irish, writes Lara Marlowein Brussels.

IN HIS pre-summit letter to European leaders, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said Taoiseach Brian Cowen's speech would be brief. The word went out discreetly from the French presidency to heads of state and government: go easy on the Irish.

Europe's obsession with the financial crisis gives the misleading impression that nobody cares anymore about Lisbon. Even Declan Ganley and Philippe de Villiers, two of Europe's most rabid anti-Lisbon campaigners, failed to hold their promised joint press conference.

But the reprieve is temporary. "If Dublin thinks the pressure is off, they've got another thing coming," said an Irish MEP. "In December, the council is going to come down on them like a hundredweight of bricks." The Taoiseach's brief performance yesterday was viewed as buying time. How serious is the Oireachtas subcommittee that is studying the referendum? An Irish EU official found the question so hilarious that he sprayed a fountain of beer over his interlocutor in a Brussels pub.

At the European Commission and Parliament, they talk of the need for better communication if Ireland should hold a second referendum, of reaching out to Irish youths, women and tabloid newspapers.

If the EU wants to be certain that Ireland never ratifies Lisbon, they should send Spanish centre-right MEP Íñigo Méndez de Vigo over for the next campaign. "The final weapon is unanimity," de Vigo told journalists who had been invited by the EU's Dublin office on the eve of the summit. "You have unanimity in foreign affairs and security," he tried to reassure us.

So far, so good. But in the next breath, de Vigo turned threatening. "You're not going to stop us," he said. "We'll go ahead [with Lisbon]. There are ways to do it. This is the history of the EU. If compromise is not possible, the others will go ahead."

De Vigo was soon demanding Cowen's resignation: "To me it is shocking that a government that held a referendum and failed is still in office. A government that puts a question to a referendum and loses has to resign: that's democracy."

And what if Ireland voted No again in 2009? What then of the Lisbon Treaty, we asked de Vigo.

"What then of Ireland?" he responded.

One even hears half-serious suggestions that, since someone will have to give up a commissioner under Nice Treaty rules, it may as well be the Irish.

"We have a limited amount of negotiating ammunition," admits a high-ranking Irish official. "Whenever we speak now, people see a Lisbon lightbulb flashing over our heads."

Ireland is disproportionately well-represented in EU institutions, the prime example being the commission's secretary general, Catherine Day. As the highest-ranking civil servant in the EU, her job is to preserve collegiality in the commission.

Though EU civil servants - like commissioners - leave their national interests behind, they are sometimes looked to for explanations, in which case they respond with the diplomatic phrase: "In the country I know best . . . "

"People here think the Lisbon Treaty is in Ireland's interest," Day told the group of journalists.

"There is a willingness to try to accommodate Ireland, but they want to know how long it will take. We do have to explain to the others that the Irish are not against Europe. The most depressing thing is that people voted No for reasons that had nothing to do with the treaty."

Frank Keoghan (58), retired avionics instructor and founder of the Irish People's Movement, stood at the barbed-wire police barricade on the Robert Schuman roundabout, a few hundred metres from the European Council building yesterday. It was raining, but 17 Irish men and women who'd paid their own airfare to hold a one-hour vigil stood their ground.

"I hope Brian Cowen looks down the street and sees us," Keoghan said. "We're here to remind him that we said No, and it's his job to represent us." His group was comprised of "Greens and ones who left Labour".

Someone handed a "No Means No" T-shirt to Irish MEP Kathy Sinnott, who shivered. "I already know what's happening," she said, looking at the council building. "Because they're constantly plotting it."

And what about the other protesters, a few metres away? Keoghan eyed the group suspiciously. They turned out to be French, British and a Pole who wanted their countries to pull out of the EU. A group I'd never encountered, the Alliance for National Resistance, they mourn the French franc every February 17th and want to protect French cheese from Europe.

A young man from de Villiers's right-wing "sovereignist" movement waved an Irish Tricolour and shouted how proud he was of the Irish.

"Oh no," Keoghan said, shrinking back. "The sort of Europe they'd support would not be what we want."