Post-Lisbon Ireland's EU past is truly a foreign land

Sat, Jul 26, 2008, 01:00

INSIDE POLITICS:Ireland has lived in a cocoon in the wake of Lisbon, with few prepared to spell out the consequences, writes Mark Hennessy.

IN HIS darkest moments after the Lisbon Treaty referendum defeat, Taoiseach Brian Cowen must have prayed that voters would, in time, suffer the regrets usual with a hangover. Voters would wake up, understand the significance of their decision and repent, or, at least, thrice deny that they had had anything to do with it, and blame others.

So far, there is precious little sign of it. If anything, a majority seem rather pleased with themselves, convinced that we have shown others the light. Indeed, there is more than a little preening self-regard about it all.

Moreover, some of those who voted Yes would not do so again - if anecdotal evidence and some opinion polling are to be believed - irritated that a democratic vote is meeting with less than respect.

In such a drama, of course, there has to be an interfering, all-knowing foreigner. Step forward, one Nicolas Sarkozy straight from central casting.

Cue self-righteous indignation.

In reality, Sarkozy's major sin before visiting Dublin was to be truthful - even if he did not properly understand Cowen's difficulties fully until he came.

Such sympathy, in so far as it exists at all, will not last long, particularly since the Government has few ideas about how to solve the crisis. So far, too many in Ireland are seeing the post-Lisbon landscape entirely through Irish eyes, refusing to accept that the other 26 have any view worth considering.

By next spring, Ireland faces the dangerous prospect of refusing to sign up for Lisbon, but also refusing to accept a reduction in the size of the European Commission as is required under the Nice Treaty.

True, as the No camp says, Nice made clear that all member states would unanimously have to accept such a decision before it could happen. So far, opinion is divided on what size the commission should be, amid the view that some countries would not be at all unhappy to see the cuts plan shelved.

If such is the case, Ireland could be lucky. If not, however, Ireland is in serious danger of learning that mice need to be careful when big elephants start moving around the room. For decades Ireland has successfully manoeuvred in occasionally treacherous EU waters by ducking and diving, by hiding behind others' coat-tails and by rarely coming into the full glare of the searchlights.

Those days are gone.

By year's end, every other EU state - unless Ireland gets unbelievably lucky - will have ratified Lisbon, and will sit impatiently tapping the table waiting for Cowen's next move. However, he has few places to go.

He is being told that he cannot get changes to the treaty. And he cannot launch into a new referendum campaign unless he gets serious changes. If he does get such changes, then the No camp can legitimately argue that the Government did a poor deal in the first place, and every other EU state has already said that Lisbon will not be renegotiated by them.

If he gets fig leaves, non-legally binding declarations and such, they will be shown to be such. Back in 1992, Denmark had to come up with a series of opt-outs - with precious little help from other member states - after it rejected the Maastricht Treaty. And a succession of Danish governments have rued the day ever since, and they were ready finally to come back in from the cold in September if Ireland had voted Yes.

Their plan to hold a referendum has had to be cancelled, since the Irish No has made its passage more doubtful. The Danish experience with its opt-outs is interesting, if only because it highlights the danger of erecting fences that can prove in time to have been put in the wrong place.

Even if Cowen could win a second referendum he does not have a prayer of doing so in time for the European Parliament elections to be held under the Lisbon rules.

And his chances of doing so in time to allow the commission to be appointed by Lisbon, rather than Nice, rules are not much better - even if he was to hold a referendum on the same day as the European Parliament elections, as the French proposed last week.

Faced with such a crisis, the EU will, of course, muddle through as it has done for decades. All states could accept that Lisbon is dead and that a new treaty is necessary, though the gods would seriously need to be on Ireland's side for that to happen.

It could, for example, delay appointing a new commission, leaving the existing team in place on a care-and-maintenance basis for some months. But if the rest unite and insist that the commission must be cut, Ireland faces the prospect of learning that the right of veto is limited by the realities of politics.

Some in the Yes camp argue that Ireland will be the one to lose its place at the commission if Nice rules continue to apply next summer. If that happened, Cowen would have little business returning to Ireland at all after an EU summit since, politically, he would be a dead man walking. In fact, if it turned out like that, it is arguable that the rest of the EU would have decided that Ireland was simply not worth the bother.

So far Ireland has lived in a cocoon in the wake of Lisbon, with few prepared to spell out the consequences of our referendum decision.

But there are consequences. The issue is not whether Lisbon is dead, or whether it is not. Rather it is that Ireland's relationship with the EU has changed fundamentally. Whatever else is guaranteed Ireland's EU past is truly a foreign land. If the country does vote again and says Yes - and this is difficult to envisage right now - then Ireland will look profoundly foolish, and chastened. We may, in time, regard that as a small price to pay.