Securing of Lisbon guarantees shows the value of taking risks

Sat, Jul 4, 2009, 01:00

Brian Cowen was right to stick his neck out at EU level, where great flexibility was shown, writes GARRET FITZGERALD.

LAST WEEK I wrote about the contrast between our record of considerable success in the foreign policy area, contrasting this with our domestic economic failures, which sometimes involved precisely the same political leadership.

The latest example of Irish foreign policy success has been the negotiation by the Taoiseach of the Lisbon guarantees, together with the reversal of the proposal to reduce the number of European Commission members – a success that has come at a time when we are suffering severely from the consequences of earlier domestic economic policy mistakes.

To achieve a successful outcome in these negotiations our Government had first of all to identify a full range of issues to which various elements in our public opinion had proven sensitive, and then to seek and secure guarantees, not just on some, but on all of these. If there were counsels of caution about not sticking his neck out too far, they were rightly ignored.

As foreign minister, I can recall being warned in 1976 by civil servants about the danger of a very damaging rebuff in relation to an attempt to secure an increase in our fish catch, at a time when other states were being required to limit their catches. I ignored this warning, and we secured an expansion of our catch which eventually increased its size six-fold – until over-fishing of our waters cut this increase back to four times our pre-EU catch. Again as taoiseach I was warned that my attempt to get a substantial increase in the milk quota proposed for Ireland had a big chance of failing – which, to mix a metaphor, would have left a lot of egg on my face.

But the job of politicians is to take such risks, and Brian Cowen was right on this occasion to go for the jackpot – looking for everything that might help to secure support for the Lisbon Treaty next October including legally binding protocols rather than political declarations.

There was bound to be opposition to some of these guarantees from a number of other governments who feared either that they might provoke moves from other quarters that could destabilise the treaty, or might be used to prejudice a particular interest of a government.

However, the other states badly needed Irish ratification and, in any event, the EU tradition has always been one of states helping any of their number out of political difficulties – suppressing any irritation that might be felt about how that partner got into such a mess.

And there certainly must have been huge irritation at the glaring double failure of the Ahern government to mount serious referendum campaigns to secure ratification first of Nice and then of Lisbon. However, our partners swallowed their irritation and have delivered on all the issues.

On commission membership we were helped, of course, by the fact that some other smaller member states were also unhappy with the prospect of finding themselves in future without a member of the commission during five out of each subsequent 15-year period.

There were – and are – arguments on both sides of this particular issue.

It is certainly true that in the past it has been helpful to have had an Irish member of the commission, for although it is not a commissioner’s job to advocate the interests of his own state, he can, and very properly sometimes does, point out to his colleagues the desirability of reviewing certain aspects of proposed EU law.

I believe that much of the success of the EU has been due to the fact that in this way, before a draft law is presented to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, many of the problems that such legislation might have presented to individual states will have been ironed out at commission level.

However, there is another side to this argument. During the past 20 years, enlargement of the union to 27 states, each with a commissioner, has contributed to some weakening of the role of that body. This is potentially disadvantageous to the interests of smaller states that depend upon the European Commission’s exclusive right of legislative initiative to prevent possible attempts by larger states to impose their wishes. So a smaller and perhaps more effective commission might serve our interests better.

Moreover, the weakness of successive European Commissions has left the union without the kind of leadership that Europe badly needs, in what is becoming a very complex world. The Lisbon Treaty, if and when we ratify it, will certainly help to fill some of this leadership deficit, and will hopefully strengthen the foreign policy side of our union, through which Europe can exert a positive influence on the world.

Incidentally, there is still a curious failure in Ireland to understand how the EU foreign policy system works. Common EU foreign policy exists only in respect of issues in relation to which all member states manage to agree. Far from our being in danger of being required to accept foreign policy positions incompatible with our values and interests, we have a veto on all such decisions.

Within the EU we retain, and exercise vigorously, an independent foreign policy position in relation to a very wide range of issues. This became absolutely clear during our two-year term on the UN Security Council earlier in this decade, when we successfully opposed four of the five permanent members of the security council on different aspects of their policies. At that time our independent stance on so many issues was, however, totally ignored by our media – until I pointed it out in this column in April 2003.

The simple fact is that within the EU our foreign policy position on any issue ceases to be independent only when other states and ourselves come to agree on that issue.