Nicolas gets an insight into the very difficult life of Brian

Tue, Jul 22, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:He came, he saw, he wriggled away in the best political style. But the problem of the Lisbon Treaty remains, writes Mark Hennessy.

NICOLAS SARKOZY came, Nicolas Sarkozy saw and Nicolas Sarkozy left for Paris last night with a greater understanding of the troubles in the life of Brian Cowen.

Impatient, self-obsessed and savagely blunt he may be, but the French president is, however, a consummate performer, and he dazzled many he encountered in his five hours in Dublin.

Indeed, the one-day visit would have been an undoubted triumph, and of considerable help to the Government, if it had not had the week-long preamble that it suffered.

Questioned in Government Buildings, Sarkozy simply denied that he had ever said last week that Ireland had no choice but to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty.

If he did not say it, the French spent a week not denying it, and Brian Cowen certainly thought he had said it, so one has to take Sarkozy's denial with a certain grain of salt.

However, Sarkozy, who had such high hopes for his six-month-long EU presidency, now has some understanding of the damage the comments caused to Lisbon supporters.

Questioned about it in Government Buildings, Sarkozy simply blamed the Press. If I come, I meddle; if I do not, I stand accused of indifference, he said.

It was the classic straw man defence: Deny something with which one was never charged. No-one objected to his visit. Many did object, however, to his laying down the law.

From the beginning, the organisation of the trip lacked a little in understanding with the Élysée failing to heed warnings given by the Government, and others in good time.

In the end, everything in yesterday's cramped schedule over-ran. The meeting in the French embassy lasted for nearly two hours, and was a useful affair.

His audience, 18 in number, were wooed, caressed, and applauded. And they responded. In Irish, it would be called plámás. In any language, it appears to have been effective.

The difficulties caused for the Yes side over the past week will fade in time, particularly since they were not matched by a public faux pas in Dublin.

During two hours of talks in Government Buildings with Cowen, Sarkozy received a politely-expressed, but direct assessment of the difficulties ahead.

Shortly afterwards, he had separate but very blunt encounters with Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, who revealed publicly what they had said to him.

A solution will not be found quickly. It is not just Ireland's problem. It is the European Union's problem. And don't bet on a second referendum ever being held, they said.

For now, Sarkozy might be prepared not to talk about a second referendum, but in the end, however, it will come down to it, unless miracles appear.

In reality, Brian Cowen's options are limited. EU partners will not, or cannot offer treaty changes, and, yet, he risks everything if he goes back to the people without them.

Besides anything else, holding a second referendum on a second treaty is not the same as holding a second referendum on the Nice Treaty.

Some one-trick ponies are exactly that. Even the second Nice referendum had an electoral mandate because it was one of Fianna Fáil's general election manifestoes.

Clearly, whatever else, Sarkozy now accepts that a solution will not be found, and implemented by the time his EU presidency ends in December. And he emphasised, time and time again, that the EU does not want to move ahead without Ireland; that all want the 27 to stay together. But he mentioned time and again that a deadline does exist - even if he did not necessarily call it that - because the European Parliament is up for election next June.

Some will have taken comfort from the fact that by saying that it can be held under Lisbon, or Nice that he accepts the possibility that it might have to happen under the latter. On that, only time will tell. In essence, Ireland would have to have accepted the Lisbon Treaty by February/March for the next elections to be held in June.

Perhaps it is possible, but few in the Government right now would bet on it, particularly since a referendum would have to be held without major treaty amendments.

And on that, Sarkozy was very clear yesterday, as he was earlier this month when he wooed MEPs in Strasbourg with a three-hour master-class.

If it is reopened, other countries will demand changes to the bits of it that they swallowed only with difficulty under pressure from German chancellor Angela Merkel.

However, the holding of Euro elections under the old rules would mean that the incoming one would be smaller, with 50+ of the existing membership facing the chop.

Furthermore, the European Parliament would be denied very considerable powers that it dearly wants to have under the Lisbon Treaty.

Clearly more relaxed at the end of the day than he was at the beginning, the Taoiseach looked a happily-relieved man as he bade farewell to the French leader.

In truth, the fundamentals have not changed. The head of the EU Council may have finally learned that one is less likely to get something by being accused of demanding it with menaces.

But he and others still want the Lisbon Treaty to come into force, and they do not want to make any changes to it. Sooner, or later, Ireland will be faced with this crux.

In the meantime, the Government may now have more time to decide its next steps, or, more accurately, simply to let wounds heal, but ideas are thin on the ground.

Cowen may now get away with a preliminary report in October, but his EU Council colleagues will want a plan of action by the time they next meet in December, regardless of Sarkozy's soft words yesterday.

And, right now, Brian Cowen is not sure what solution he can offer. He cannot get concessions, and he cannot hold a second referendum unless he can be sure that he can win it.

• Mark Hennessy is Political Correspondent