Rejection may undermine EU's effectiveness, warns Swedish premier

 

PRESIDENCY'S VIEW:A NO vote in the Lisbon referendum could catapult the EU into an endless round of institutional debate that alienates the public and undermines its effectiveness, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has warned.

Mr Reinfeldt, whose country holds the EU presidency, has also confirmed for the first time that EU leaders are already working on a contingency plan in case of a No vote, which would see the EU having to live under the provisions of the existing Nice treaty.

“The biggest worry I have . . . is that the institutional question just goes on and the perception of people in Europe is more of an inward Brussels-based discussion that never ends,” said Mr Reinfeldt, who is chairing the European Council.

“Almost no one stops me in the streets of Stockholm and says they have a question about the Lisbon Treaty, but they are very worried about the financial crisis and climate change. It’s time to move on to political issues where we can really make a difference,” he told The Irish Times.

Mr Reinfeldt said he hoped for a Yes vote in Ireland, which would enable the EU to move forward with the treaty to become efficient, involve national parliaments more and open the way to EU enlargement. But he said Sweden would respect the result whichever way the people voted and added that a No vote would stop the implementation of the treaty.

“If it is a No, then we keep on with the Nice treaty,” said Mr Reinfeldt, who also downplayed claims that the first No vote had damaged Ireland’s reputation and led to a loss of its influence at EU level.

“There is a deep respect for political processes and democracies. We have had No referendums in other countries as well. It is important to see that every time we have seen that the EU has shown an openness to listen,” he said. “This will not affect the possibility of Ireland to have influence.”

Mr Reinfeldt said talks have been held about what to do if there is a No vote, particularly on how to comply with the Nice treaty provision that mandates an immediate reduction in size of the next European Commission.

The Lisbon Treaty includes a clause that can overturn this provision through a unanimous vote of all 27 EU leaders. The European Council last December agreed it would invoke the clause to meet the Irish public’s concerns. But this clause is not contained in the Nice treaty, presenting the EU with an immediate legal problem if Ireland votes No.

Mr Reinfeldt said a “26 plus one option” was probably the best solution, whereby 26 states retain their commissioner and the 27th state is offered the post of high representative for foreign affairs instead. This would give all 27 countries a top EU job, while complying with the legal condition for an EU executive of less than 27 members, which is stipulated in the Nice treaty. He said the guarantee on the commission given to Ireland after the No vote to Lisbon last year had been welcomed by many smaller member states.

“Thanks to the Irish people, we [Sweden] will now have a commissioner, even in the future . . . everyone can recognise that feeling that it is important to be represented,” said Mr Reinfeldt.

But he said was still a question about the efficiency of having up to 30 commissioners in an EU executive if further enlargement occurred.

“We might in the future get back to this discussion. What if we keep on enlarging? But for now it’s very important that this was a call from the Irish people and we have met it. I know this was a factor in the Irish referendum.”

He said he hoped it was clear to the Irish people that other EU states had answered the worries and questions they had about the treaty through the guarantees agreed after a reflection period.

“It is pretty clear to me that I think everything was met and I hope that is the feeling,” he added.

He said a No vote would cause uncertainty and may increase the risk of a two-tier or core Europe emerging in the future, which excludes certain states.

“No one can take for granted that the EU is working smoothly and perfectly. At the end of the day, the leaders of Europe must take responsibility and there is always the risk of a few big ones advancing on their own without giving really a space for everyone,” said Mr Reinfeldt.

However, he said he didn’t think this would be the result of a No vote because in an EU of 27 members, no one country could control Europe or react on its own to globalisation, the financial crisis or climate change.

“When we are trying to get political answers to have an impact on the affects of globalisation, how could we do that if we are small and medium-sized countries on our own? To me, the EU is not a loss of sovereignty, it is actually a gain of influence,” he said.

FACTFILE

FREDRIK REINFELDT

He is leader of the centre-right Moderate party in Sweden and was elected prime minister in September 2006. He took on the role of chairman of the European Council when Sweden assumed the rotating EU presidency in July. He is tasked with organising the work programme of the union and representing it in international meetings for the six-month duration of Sweden’s presidency. He is the man who will have to deal with the consequences of the result of next month’s referendum on the treaty.