Ireland must remain part of decision-making process in EU


A second referendum on Lisbon is likely, and economic disaster and exiting the EU will loom if we reject it again, writes Peter Brennan

NOW THAT Ireland has voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty the political and economic consequences flowing from the electorate's decision have come sharply into focus. What is the likely fate of the treaty, and indeed of Ireland in Europe?

Judging by the measured response to date, Taoiseach Brian Cowen will face an intense but generally sympathetic political grilling when he attends the European Council meeting that began last night and continues today. A report on progress to ratify the treaty and the full functioning of the treaty as soon as it enters into force is the first item on the agenda.

He will be asked no doubt to comment on the situation. He will be quizzed about the precise reasons why Ireland rejected the treaty and specifically what issues related to the treaty caused the electorate to oppose the recommendations of the vast majority of the Oireachtas and Ireland's social partners. Ireland will be expected to bring forward a solution after a short period of reflection.

The Lisbon Treaty must be ratified by all 27 member states before it comes into force. Therefore, the first consequence of Ireland's No is that even if the remaining member states that have yet to ratify the treaty do so over the coming months, it cannot be implemented in full.

However, there appears to be growing support for the option (once the ratification process is completed) of enacting key aspects of the treaty by means of the Nice provisions on enhanced operation (whereby the EU-26, excluding Ireland, would move ahead with some aspects of EU policy such as police and judicial co-operation and agreeing an EU position on climate change).

A two-speed Europe would exclude Ireland from the negotiating room; our legitimate views would be ignored.

Whatever else happens, the Government must avoid a situation whereby Ireland is not allowed to participate in EU decision-making in policy areas that are critical to the national interest.

It is possible that Ireland's No may complicate the passage of the required ratification legislation in some national parliaments. However, there are no signs that another member state will reject the treaty.

The harsh realpolitik is that once all 26 member states complete their ratification procedures, probably in the autumn, Ireland will be in splendid isolation. This will be the political crunch time.

The barrage of generally negative criticism from the world's press will damage Ireland's reputation in the short term.

Some commentators will respect the democratic decision taken. Others will cast doubts about Ireland's European vocation and may question our continuing membership in the circumstances.

Almost all will try to puzzle out why the electorate voted in the manner it did.

We have short memories. After rejecting the Nice Treaty, Ireland was roundly criticised for postponing enlargement.

Our competitors sought to exploit the opportunity. However, once Nice was ratified all the initial bad press was quickly forgotten.

The rejection will cause a degree of frustration among many member states, not least the French government (Ireland's staunchest ally on agriculture and the WTO issues). The key issue is whether this degree of frustration will affect Ireland's reputation, credibility and status as a member state. While time will tell, the early political reactions have been more positive than might have been expected. It is improbable that the substance of the treaty can be renegotiated. This is because member states, ably assisted by the Irish presidency, have already re-negotiated the constitutional treaty.

This compromise satisfied everyone's bottom line, including Ireland's. Many governments left the negotiating table feeling they could have struck a better deal. Such is the nature of international negotiations.

If Ireland proposes the adoption by the EU-27 of an additional protocol or a Solemn Declaration on Ireland in Europe (an initiative that merits serious consideration), member states have to agree by unanimity to give legal effect to these provisions by means of parliamentary ratification. They will also be aware that there is no guarantee that Ireland will vote for the Lisbon Treaty.

Discounting the immediate media frenzy about the rejection and perhaps some over-the-top commentary from some member states, the Government needs to think through what it can deliver domestically; what is achievable politically at EU level; and, most importantly, how Ireland's tarnished image can be restored.

While we will not be rushed to bring forward a solution, it would not be good for the economy or business if there was a long period of uncertainty about Ireland's response to this self-made crisis.

Assuming the remaining 26 member states ratify, the holding of a second referendum next year is a racing certainty. There will be a single issue next time around that is not amenable to spin and disinformation.

We will be voting to remain as a full member of the European Union.

A third Irish No in a decade on a European treaty would be a disaster for the economy as we might then have to negotiate some form of exit arrangement.

This could mean, in a worse-case scenario, enhanced Associated Member status; the relationship that Norway, Switzerland and Turkey have with the EU.

We would benefit from the internal market but could be forced to abandon the core elements of EU membership such as Cap payments and membership of the euro.

It has been remarked on many occasions that Ireland needs Europe more than Europe needs Ireland.

We seem to have forgotten that last Thursday.

Peter Brennan is managing director of EPS Consulting, and author of Behind Closed Doors; the EU Negotiations that Shaped Modern Ireland. He was a director of Ibec, the employer's body, and was also director of the Brussels-based Irish Business Bureau (1986-2001). He is chairman of the Institute of European Affairs Research Committee.