No vote would be an irrational act of self-injury


WORLD VIEW:In punching a hole in EU identity, our rejection of Lisbon would also align us with a Eurosceptical UK

SOME 600 journalists from around the world are expected in Dublin Castle in three weeks’ time to cover Ireland’s decision on the Lisbon Treaty, indicating the huge international attention it is attracting. Why this is so and the effects of the vote on the European Union’s global role are important issues in the referendum campaign. The decision has consequences for world politics as well as for Ireland’s position in the EU.

This became easier to understand on holiday last week in Greece, where neighbouring Turkey and Balkan states have predicated their continuing state reform projects on eventual EU membership. Should the enlargement process which has inspired them stall or fail, which most observers think it would if Lisbon falls on a second Irish No, there would be great uncertainty about their future relations with the EU and ability to sustain the political progress they have made.

The changes in decision-making and representation made by the treaty are intended to preserve the EU’s effectiveness in growing from 15 to 25 and now 27 member states – and prospectively to 34 in coming decades were Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Turkey to join. French and German leaders say there can be no further EU enlargement without Lisbon. Whatever about these seven states, which already have more or less realistic hopes of eventual membership based on existing commitments – and notwithstanding growing enlargement fatigue among EU elites and publics – the more remote chances of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia joining the EU would be arrested by such a crisis.

The internal and external consequences for all of them would be equally bleak. Without the discipline of political, legal and economic reforms imposed by the need to adapt to EU rules and norms, these states would be in danger of reverting to a much more illiberal nationalism. Such pressures are already visible because of the economic crisis in states like Hungary. Greek commentators note last week’s report by a group of EU notables regretting the lack of progress in Turkish accession negotiations and highlight growing nationalism among Turkish youth. The Greek general election campaign accentuates this.

Many more Russians are now coming to Thessalonika and the Halkidiki region on business and holidays, along with Bulgarians and Romanians – and the ubiquitous Albanian immigrant workers. The Lisbon decision is not being taken in a geopolitical vacuum. On the contrary, it is seen as a real test of whether the EU can develop a role as a coherent international actor – especially by Russia’s leaders, but also in Asia, the US and throughout a world in which geopolitics and international institutions are being radically reconfigured.

This is the purpose of creating the overarching principles governing the EU’s common foreign and security policy – the rule of law, respect for human rights, equality, solidarity and the principles of the United Nations Charter. Likewise, the post of EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy would co-ordinate those policies more effectively, including in peace-keeping, post-conflict stabilisation, conflict prevention and combating terrorism. The European Defence Agency would boost research, avoid duplication, reduce costs and increase interoperability. This is a new security, functional not territorial and, from Ireland’s neutral point of view, entirely voluntary.

An interesting commentary on the referendum from Stratfor, a US foreign policy think tank, argues Russia could be the main beneficiary of an Irish No. It would allow Russia to show the EU is not a real international entity, since Lisbon’s institutional reforms would be lost. Countries Moscow wants to pull back into its sphere of influence would not have a long-term alternative. Russia could then be the only option for the former Soviet Union countries on Moscow’s periphery. But Russian foreign policy in the Balkans would also be given a shot in the arm.

A small state should be very cautious about becoming the occasion of, an excuse for, or identified as the pivotal factor in such a consequential shift, unless it has vital interests at stake. And since the alternative to Lisbon would be a political regrouping of the larger core states in a two-tier, two-speed setting outside treaty rules, in which smaller states would have reduced influence and Ireland would be marginalised, a No vote would be an irrational self-injury.

This is doubly so because such an alternative European system would risk reproducing older power struggles the EU was originally set up to overcome. During the 1996 Irish EU presidency, an intense effort was made to draft rules designed to limit such “variable geometry” within the EU system, which became part of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997. Somewhat amended in Nice and Lisbon, these rules still apply. It would be ironic indeed were they to be invoked in a more permissive setting after an Irish No.

A second historical irony arises from the looming Conservative victory in the UK general election. An Irish No would embolden their Euroscepticism, reinforce the UK’s exclusion from any emergent core EU – and reposition Ireland into that new British slipstream from which it has spent the last 36 years successfully escaping. Judged on these grounds – and with all due apologies for an odious phrase – this looks like a “no brainer”.