Martin rejects talk of Ireland being forced out of EU

 

MINISTER FOR Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has dismissed German speculation about forcing Ireland from the European Union if voters reject the Lisbon Treaty a second time.

The so-called "Norwegian option" of reducing Ireland to associate member status has been floated by senior German foreign ministry officials as a means of clearing the way for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

In 1972 Norway's negotiated EEC membership deal was rejected by voters in a referendum; today the country is a member of the free-trade European Economic Area (EEA).

Speaking in Berlin yesterday after talks with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr Martin insisted that the Lisbon issue in Ireland "is for the Irish people to decide".

"We are at a turning point in our relationship with Europe and, as a Government, we will offer advice that future generations are better at the heart of Europe than at the margins," said Mr Martin.

"But the Germans are very committed to Lisbon, they are not leaving us in any doubt about that." The Norwegian suggestion was, he said, "not in any room of consequence".

Mr Steinmeier denied such a "Norwegian option" had been floated, saying that Berlin would "naturally give Ireland time to make the necessary decision".

He suggested that recent world developments, in particular the war in Georgia and the financial crisis, had "encouraged new thinking everywhere in Europe that perhaps this EU does have a greater value than many have assumed in recent years".

Annoyed Irish officials view the "Norwegian" remark as an unhelpful distraction in the domestic debate and grist to the mill of Lisbon opponents.

"We don't know what the Germans are playing at," said one. "The message they were giving us before was, 'don't be ambushed by Sarkozy', now here they are at it themselves."

Since the failure of the Irish referendum, the foreign ministry in Berlin has been sceptical of the chances of a second vote, and had never believed such a vote would be possible before next year's European Parliament elections.

Yesterday, one long-term observer of the foreign ministry described the "Norwegian option" as an "old-school Schröder scare tactic".

Mr Martin remarked that such a tactic "doesn't work and won't work".

Chancellor Angela Merkel's office was surprised to hear of the foreign ministry speculation yesterday. "I have no time for threats and what-if scenarios in the case of a second failure," said the chancellor's spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm.

"On the contrary, I am confident that the Irish Government and people will find a common path that is good for Ireland and . . . for all EU member states."

Several other EU member states, including Sweden and Germany's eastern neighbours, have already indicated they would oppose even discussing such a proposal, which they view as a worrying precedent.

At yesterday's meeting Mr Steinmeier made clear that, in Berlin's opinion, Ireland can have whatever opt-outs and clarifications it wishes, and in whatever form it requires, once it does not reopen the Lisbon package and require countries that have already ratified it to do so again.

Without Lisbon, Germany will not agree to any further enlargement of the EU even though it may be technically possible with the Nice rules.

That raises the pressure on Ireland if, with Croatia already knocking on the accession door, Iceland requests EU membership as an alternative to accepting Russian loans to prop up its economy.

If a second referendum is not held next year, Ireland will, by Berlin's reckoning, enter the last-chance saloon in the spring of 2010, with British parliamentary elections due and Conservative leader David Cameron promising an EU referendum.

German officials are at pains to stress that they are still optimistic for a successful second referendum.

But analysts at think tanks in Berlin report hearing senior German and EU officials openly discussing such a "Norwegian option" at conferences.

"For them, this is no longer science fiction but a real option," said Jan Techau, director of the Alfred Oppenheimer Centre for European Policy Studies.

"What I find interesting about it is that they aren't ashamed to be so forthright about it even if it sets a catastrophic precedent that will generate nothing but ill-will and defiance in Ireland."