Second treaty rebuff would usher in era of uncertainty

Thu, Sep 10, 2009, 01:00

THE ROAD TO LISBON II: The overall fallout from a second No vote is hard to predict, writes European Correspondent JAMIE SMYTH. More certain is that Ireland would lose standing in the EU...and would also lose its commissioner

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen said Ireland had moved into “uncharted waters” when the public rejected the Lisbon Treaty last June. A repeat result on October 2nd would leave him struggling for new adjectives to describe Ireland’s relationship with its EU partners.

The events of the past year have proved difficult for Irish diplomats, TDs and Ministers working to resolve the country’s “Lisbon dilemma”. But they have been helped by the fact that EU referendums have been lost before (Ireland voted No to the Nice treaty in 2001 and Denmark voted No to the Maastricht treaty in 1992) and subsequently carried in a second referendum. This enabled the Government to follow a well-worn path, which is characterised by public reflection and clarification, towards holding a second vote. But no EU government has ever lost a second referendum on the same European treaty.

“There is no precedent for a second No vote. It has never happened before and this makes it extremely difficult to say what would happen in the event of a second lost referendum,” says Antonio Missiroli, director of the European Policy Centre think tank.

Most experts agree it would kill off the Lisbon Treaty, prompt yet another navel- gazing debate on how to reform the union and, as a consequence, deflect the EU from tackling key issues such as climate change or immigration. But it is almost impossible to predict exactly how a second No vote would impact on Ireland’s standing in the EU and on other states’ willingness to consider further political integration without the Republic.

Some politicians, including the leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, British MEP Graham Watson, have warned that the Government may be forced to withdraw from the union. This sentiment was also expressed by some French and German politicians after the first No vote when they publicly questioned whether just four million people in Ireland could be allowed to hold up 490 million Europeans?

But the nuclear option of asking Ireland to leave the EU is pure fantasy given that there is no legal mechanism in the EU treaties to expel a state and the EU rule book says clearly all treaty change must be agreed on the basis of unanimity. Ireland’s membership of the euro zone also embeds it firmly within the EU making any divorce very difficult.

But rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, which is the product of almost a decade of painstaking negotiations between EU states on how to reform the union, would not be cost-free for Ireland or the union. It would inevitably prompt bitter recriminations from pro-Lisbon governments across the EU, which made concessions to meet Irish concerns. It would also cause EU and other world leaders to question whether an EU of 27 states is unreformable and prompt a political crisis that would undermine its credibility.

“One practical consequence of an Irish No would be political paralysis, at least for a transition period. Enlargement policy would also be stopped dead in its tracks,” says Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels. Germany and France have both insisted no new countries can be allowed to join the EU until internal reforms are undertaken to allow the union function more effectively. This places Croatia, Turkey and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which are all formal EU candidates, in a difficult position. But it also threatens to have a destabilising impact on the volatile Balkan region where several countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Bosnia are all implementing reforms in the hope of being offered the prospect of EU membership in the future. Many European diplomats fear this could hand extreme nationalists an opportunity to regain a foothold and destabilise the region.

The first practical consequences of a second Irish No vote is that the union would have to live under the terms of the current Nice Treaty for the short-to-medium term at least. This presents an immediate challenge for EU leaders, who would have to decide in October how to comply with Nice’s stipulation that there must be less commissioners than states in the next EU executive. Unlike the Lisbon Treaty, Nice does not contain a clause enabling the reduction in size of the commission to be overturned through a unanimous decision of EU heads of state. But finding any EU state prepared to relinquish their right to nominate a commissioner in the event of an Irish No vote would not be easy.

“Ireland could be asked to step aside from the commission because once you enter exceptional circumstances anything goes. But it is very difficult to predict,” says Gros, who notes Ireland would lose “political authority and standing” in the event of a No vote.

Such a scenario is unlikely given the inevitable public backlash in Ireland. But there is little doubt that a second No vote in October would undermine Irish influence in Brussels in more subtle ways. Cowen would certainly not get the same sympathetic ear that he received last year when asking for EU help in dealing with the pork contamination crisis. Neither would Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan enjoy such flexibility from Brussels when he comes calling about our excessive budget deficit or bad bank plan.

Rejecting Lisbon could also create more fundamental threats to Ireland’s influence in the union by persuading big states to bypass the EU altogether when formulating policies or inspiring the creation of a new core Europe with states seeking deep political integration.

Tired by the slow pace of EU justice initiatives, French president Nicolas Sarkozy set up the G5 group (now the G6 which includes Poland) in 2003 as a forum where the justice ministers from the five biggest EU states – Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain – meet to formulate new ideas. Ireland and the other small- to medium-sized EU states are not invited to attend even though the ideas often become legislative proposals introduced at an EU level. With no Lisbon Treaty, big states could set up similar informal groups that exclude smaller EU states.

Given the failure to get agreement on the EU constitution and the Lisbon Treaty it seems highly unlikely that EU leaders would consider drawing up an entirely new treaty in the event of a No vote. The probable election of a Eurosceptic Conservative government in Britain next year also limits the potential of using a future accession treaty with Iceland or Croatia to introduce many of the reforms sought by pro-integrationist EU states.

This raises the prospect of states, which want deeper political integration in Europe, forging ahead with a new “core Europe” club. Such a project would be fraught with political and legal difficulties and could potentially destablise the EU. But if a new “core Europe” proved successful it could remove Ireland from the European mainstream.

None of the scenarios painted above are at all certain in the event of a second No vote. But clearly rejecting Lisbon would create an era of uncertainty for Ireland and the union as both try to tackle the big issues facing Europe in the 21st century such as the recession, climate change, energy security, an ageing population and immigration.

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