Barroso downplays Irish fears and insists treaty is only common sense


EU:THE EU has no plan B if Ireland rejects Lisbon, EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso, who is in Dublin today, tells Jamie Smyth

EUROPEAN COMMISSION president José Manuel Barroso has urged people to vote for the Lisbon Treaty to boost Europe and Ireland's influence in the world. He has also warned there is no "plan B" to further reform the EU if the treaty is rejected while seeking to alleviate concerns about plans to harmonise Europe's corporate tax base and a possible global trade deal.

"This time I can tell you there is no plan B," Barroso told The Irish Times on the eve of today's visit to the Republic, where he will address the National Forum on Europe.

He warned a No vote would have implications for Ireland's standing in the EU and the other member states. "If any country is spending more energy in discussing how we are going to ratify or not going to ratify the treaty afterwards, it is of course detrimental to all of us."

However he added: "I don't want to concentrate on any negative scenarios because I don't want to give the impression that I am putting any kind of pressure on the Irish people." The fear in Brussels is that a rejection in Ireland - the only state to hold a referendum - would prompt a political crisis in the EU and years of institutional wrangling, which would deflect politicians from tackling concrete challenges such as climate change.

"It is quite obvious that what EU citizens want in general is for better results and not to spend all the time, or a greater amount of our time, discussing institutions," said Barroso, who lists other priorities as competition, healthcare, jobs and education.

The arguments in favour of the treaty are greater efficiency, transparency and democratic accountability and a stronger global role for the EU, according to Mr Barroso.

"It is just a question of common sense. We cannot have the same rules for 27 members and even more in the future than what we have had in the past for six or 12 members . . . Precisely because we enlarged there could be a risk of getting too far from citizens, so there are some mechanisms to reinforce democratic accountability."

Measures to boost the influence of national parliaments and a citizens' initiative that gives people the ability to propose measures at EU level, are positive steps. "The creation of a new high representative for foreign affairs, who will also sit on the commission, and a new president of the European Council should boost the union's coherence and continuity when it addresses global issues.

"For example, President Putin has met 16 presidents of the council during his term but he has only met two presidents of the commission . . . Changing a president of an institution every six months is not the best thing if we want to be more pragmatic and efficient." Asked about the dangers that a new council president would undermine the role of the commission president, Barroso replied that he doesn't see these issues of institutions in terms of a "zero sum" game.

"We need strong institutions in Europe, so when we discuss with our American friends or our Chinese or Russian partners, that we know something clear and credible is on the table." Barroso said that Ireland had a strong interest in having a strong EU because it had "punched above its weight in Europe" and benefited enormously from the union.

"The Irish [ economic] miracle would not have been possible without the EU's internal market, its structural funds that were so important for Irish development, and the possibilities opened for the global market," said Barroso, who noted that Irish people were also among the best represented at the top levels of the commission.

Mr Barroso said Charlie McCreevy got the most sought-after portfolio in the commission, while the past two commission secretary generals have been Irish: David O'Sullivan and Catherine Day, whom Barroso describes as "one of his closest collaborators". "This was not a favour to Ireland. You were able to put forward in the EU good people, good ideas and initiatives," he said.

Acutely aware of Irish sensitivities about the commission's handling of a draft plan to harmonise the corporate tax base through the union, Barroso said an initiative by tax commissioner Laszlo Kovacs has "nothing to do with the treaty".

"The treaty of Lisbon does not change how we will take decisions on tax matters. It keeps the rule of unanimity," he said. "Consolidating the current situation of taxes issues is even better for those that are against fundamental changes in tax matters."

He said the commission had not yet decided whether to come forward with the proposal on the corporate tax base and was still doing its impact assessment.

But he said there was "zero point zero, zero, zero" chance of harmonising corporate tax rates in Europe and he personally was against the idea.

He also downplayed Irish fears that a small group of EU states plan to use a provision within the treaty called enhanced co-operation which would allow them to harmonise their own tax bases. "It would only give another advantage to the countries that have lower tax rates," said Barroso.

He dismissed allegations made by campaigners against the treaty that the commission is deliberately holding back sensitive proposals such as tax harmonisation until after the Irish vote.

"We are not putting on hold any proposals. I can guarantee you that I will be saying after June 12th exactly what I am saying before June 12th. I will be saying - I am against tax harmonisation," said Barroso, who also insisted that another delayed proposal on citizens' access to healthcare abroad was simply not ready yet.

One issue that could cause Barroso a headache on his trip to the Republic is the ongoing negotiations to try to find a World Trade Organisation (WTO) deal.

Some 3,000 farmers are expected to greet Barroso with banners warning him not to allow his trade commissioner Peter Mandelson to sell out Irish farming in the talks.

"It is possible there will be some progress [ on WTO] in May, and I think it would be very good for Europe and for Ireland. Ireland is one of the member states that would benefit most from a new WTO deal . . . it would also send a positive signal for the global economy," said Barroso, who added that he felt the Irish farming sector would not suffer because high prices of food were giving more room for manoeuvre.

Asked if he would like a second mandate as commission president, Mr Barroso said it was a privilege to serve the EU.

"What I can tell you is, yes I am very happy with what I am doing."