Tory government would fully exploit collapse of Lisbon Treaty

Mon, Jun 16, 2008, 01:00

There is every prospect 26 of the 27 EU states will have approved the treaty by the year end, writes John Palmer.

IRELAND'S REJECTION of the Lisbon Treaty has cast the leaders of the European Commission, the European Parliament and most member states into something approaching despair. But it has brought joy to Britain's Conservative party which - opinion polls are all agreed - looks forward to a landslide general election victory when the UK goes to the polls in about 24 months' time.

It is now clear that a new British Tory government will exploit to the full the opportunities presented by the collapse of the Lisbon Treaty to fundamentally renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU.

To judge by the silence of Irish Ministers on this subject during the referendum campaign, it seems they had not realised the scale of the challenge which Ireland will face - without the Lisbon Treaty being in place - if Britain, a major economic partner, becomes in effect a "semi-detached" member of the EU.

Little wonder that in private some hard-line British right-wing eurosceptics are reportedly joking: "We can always offer the Irish membership of the British Commonwealth. It is the least we can do to repay our gratitude to them."

Over the weekend it became clear in London that while the British government intends to finalise the already 99 per cent completed ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the prime minister, Gordon Brown, regards it as effectively dead. There is every prospect that 26 of the 27 EU states will have approved the treaty by the year end. But it will still require unanimity to actually implement it.

One alternative would be to activate a provision agreed by all EU governments when the Lisbon Treaty was signed that: "If, two years after the signature of a treaty amending the treaties, four-fifths of the member states have ratified it and one or more member states have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council."

This could permit the European Council to ratify the treaty excluding Ireland. This would itself require the prior approval of all 27 states. The British government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt "to impose a two-tier European Union" on Ireland.

A British veto would become much more problematic, however, if the Irish Government voluntarily offered to permit the Lisbon Treaty to come into force for all the rest of the EU. It would be difficult, but not impossible then, to negotiate arrangements under which Ireland would be fully part of all EU decisions not affected by the new treaty provisions but to withdraw from those where new voting arrangements are implemented under the treaty.

There is a powerful political case for this approach. The decision of the Irish people would be respected - they would not be bound by the treaty in respect of those matters contained in it. Ireland would then be given time to reflect on how best to move forward.

There might be an opportunity to reconsider the whole affair when a Treaty of Accession is put to ratify the expected admission of Croatia to the EU some time between 2010 and 2012. It would be possible to add the reform provisions in the Lisbon Treaty to the Croatian accession treaty for ratification by referendum in Ireland.

Even hard-line opponents of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland are embarrassed at denying the right of all the other countries to ratify the treaty. Indeed, the people of Spain and Luxembourg have already approved the Constitutional Treaty in earlier referendums only to find - unlike the Irish - their Yes votes have been completely discounted. They surely could have no complaint if Ireland now voluntarily announces it will allow the rest of the EU to move forward while - at least temporarily - standing aside itself. But it will be crucial for this proposal to come from Dublin and not any other EU capital.

There is a crucial difference for Ireland in taking this decision now and not waiting for Croatia's EU membership to be approved. By then, almost certainly, David Cameron and the still profoundly eurosceptic Conservative party will be in power in London. If the Lisbon Treaty has not been implemented by then they will be able to reopen all the treaty's provisions (and more) for renegotiation.

In London many observers believe that a Conservative government would like to restrict the EU to be little more than a free-trade area with some limited co-operation on other policies. Indeed, London sees this as the best way to restrict effective European decision-making on issues such as foreign policy, security and defence to a de facto directorate of the big countries.

If Britain does renegotiate a semi-detached status within the EU, Ireland will face a very delicate decision in whether to follow Britain's lead in distancing itself from the core European project or to travel with the rest of the EU countries. There would, either way, be potentially far reaching implications for Irish foreign, economic and other policies.

The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, will have an early opportunity to explore this approach when he meets his fellow leaders at a European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. It is bound to be an embarrassing moment for Cowen because he knows of the traditionally prestigious regard in which Ireland's role in the EU has always been regarded by other countries. They are genuinely shocked that this blow has been delivered by - of all people - the Irish. But they suspect that most No voters had little idea of the deadly consequences for the EU as a whole which might follow their decision.

Cowen might, at least, ask for a period of grace for Dublin to explore whether a voluntary decision to allow the Lisbon Treaty to come into force by a two-thirds majority is feasible. He could then report back to the December European Council, under the presidency of France, for (hopefully) a decision to be taken which would lift the threat of creeping paralysis from the EU as it confronts an unprecedented array of major global challenges.

He could give one example among many to justify his stand which would command near universal support throughout Ireland. The Lisbon Treaty greatly strengthens the ability of the EU to implement radical new policies to counter climate change and CO2 emissions in particular. If the EU has to confront the climate change danger with one hand behind its back, it will not only weaken Europe but could fatally weaken Europe's ability to mobilise the rest of world opinion behind a new climate change treaty to replace Kyoto.

The Irish referendum decision will not mean the collapse of the EU. But it could condemn the EU to a lengthy period of stagnation and declining effectiveness.

That would be a recipe for the return to big-state power politics which so many Irish No voters fear. It would also set a dismal precedent for peoples throughout the world - way beyond Europe's borders - who must struggle to manage the process of global inter-dependence lest we repeat the disasters of the 1930s.

John Palmer is a writer specialising in European affairs. Between 1997 and 2006 he was the founding political director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.