Hard options begin to emerge

Mon, Jun 16, 2008, 01:00

IRELAND AND the European Union are in a great mess following rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in last Thursday's referendum. The costly political consequences of the decision, mostly ignored or disregarded during the campaign, are rapidly becoming apparent. Ireland faces extremely troubling choices concerning our future relationship with the rest of the European Union and its member-states. They recognise Ireland's sovereign right to reject the treaty but do not accept that the reforms it contains should be abandoned, even if legally the treaty can only be implemented unanimously.

The immediate decision facing the other eight EU governments where the treaty has not been ratified is whether to proceed despite Irelands decision. They are perfectly entitled to do so using their own constitutional arrangements and it looks as if all of them will. The Czech government's hesitation will probably be offset by preparations for their forthcoming EU presidency, while the British government cannot afford to take the risk of further empowering the opposition Conservatives. So Ireland may be alone in seeking a renegotiation of the treaty, even though the referendum decision raises issues of concern for all member-states. That is the hard political fact of the matter.

How the other states respond to this dilemma will help to determine future Irish attitudes. In many of them there will be little sympathy for a government which signed the treaty and then proved unable to convince its voters to support it. But the consequences for the system as a whole are so troubling that there is likely to be a greater willingness to find a co-operative outcome if possible. At this week's European Council in Brussels Taoiseach Brian Cowen will be asked to explain the No vote and what the Government wants to see happen now. Since there is no one explanation of such a heterogeneous outcome it looks impossible to formulate a satisfactory list of demands capable of commanding an Irish, let alone a European, consensus. A general or collective renegotiation of the treaty is highly unlikely.

Realistically, therefore, Ireland could be faced with a bleak choice between seeking guarantees and clarifications that might be brought back to another referendum (a politically dangerous or even impossible option domestically), opting out of the Lisbon Treaty provisions voluntarily, or being excluded from them if the other 26 states decide to pursue them in some other way. There is now a clear danger that some form of two tier or two-speed system could emerge whichever choice is made. For the foreseeable future Ireland would be in the looser or slower lane, inevitably with reduced influence and goodwill and less capacity to defend vital interests. In such circumstances we would indelibly be reclassified as sceptical or reluctant Europeans.

Avoiding such undesirable outcomes will tax the Governments political and diplomatic skills to the limit. It is essential that those parties and voters who rejected the treaty clarify their demands and tailor them to this wider scenario if Ireland's international position is to be protected. The hard options begin to emerge.