Everything to be gained by ratifying Lisbon early


INSIDE POLITICS: The decision to vote No to Lisbon undermined the country’s credibility in the eyes of decision-makers

THE ELECTORATE appears to be waking up to the fact that our membership of the European Union and the euro zone is the only thing standing between this country and an economic catastrophe on the scale of Iceland.

What still does not appear to have impinged on the public consciousness, though, is that the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty last June was a key factor in pushing the Irish economy far deeper into the mire than might otherwise have been the case.

The wilfulness of the decision to vote No to Lisbon, on the basis of spurious concerns on issues such as conscription and abortion which had nothing to do with the treaty, undermined the country’s credibility in the eyes of decision-makers across the world.

When it was followed by the bursting of the Irish property bubble, a view of Ireland as a political and economic basket case gained wide currency.

That assessment resulted over the past six months in a collapse of international confidence in our ability to recover from current difficulties.

We have suffered the indignity of being bracketed by capital markets as the sick man of the EU, along with Greece.

One of the primary objectives of Government policy now is to drag the country out of this danger zone so that we at least catch up with Spain, Portugal and Italy in terms of our standing in the EU.

The danger of the current position is that, like a 10,000m runner trailing at the back of the field, we may be burned off and left to our own devices if our economic and financial position worsens.

If we manage to catch up with bigger countries like Spain and Italy, both of whom have problems similar to our own, we will at least be included in any EU-wide rescue package that has to be mounted by the European Central Bank or the commission.

One of the striking aspects of our current plight is the glee with which it has been greeted by an influential segment of British opinion.

The delight at seeing the “Paddies” being taken down a peg is only exceeded in conservative British circles by the prospect of the EU and the euro suffering irreparable damage.

How a significant segment of the Irish electorate was duped into supporting a “Little England” agenda is something historians of the future will puzzle over, particularly given the way the British financial establishment has gone out of the way to try to undermine the Irish banking system and the Irish economy in recent months.

One crucial way of restoring Ireland’s credibility, and defeating the financial pirates who are currently speculating against the country, would be to ratify the Lisbon Treaty as quickly as possible.

We don’t have the time to dawdle along until October while the finishing touches are put to legal guarantees that matter to nobody but ourselves.

In his well-received speech on Thursday night, Taoiseach Brian Cowen referred to the “hubris” of the recent past when Irish people deluded themselves into thinking that they could do it all themselves.

“That sort of arrogance has no place if Ireland is to forge ahead again,” said Cowen, who added: “Our future is in Europe for all its faults.”

There is nothing to be lost – and everything to be gained – by getting on with the referendum and ratifying the Lisbon Treaty in the spring. It would win us both friends and credibility across the EU if the issue was sorted in time for the European elections in June.

It would enable the elections to be held on the basis of Lisbon and a new EU Commission established on schedule in the autumn.

The credibility of Ireland in the EU itself would benefit from an early ratification. In the current economic climate every little will help, and an EU that can be seen to get on with its business efficiently will benefit us all.

It would also wipe the smiles off the faces of the anti-European forces who took such delight in the Irish No last June.

Having made his decisions on how to proceed with the spending cutbacks necessary for economic survival, Cowen has given the impression of greater confidence in recent days. If he were to hold a referendum before the summer and carry the people with him it would also help him to deal with the range of tough economic decisions that still lie ahead.

This time around it will be vitally important to get the Opposition parties on side to wage a coherent and united campaign.

Both Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore felt aggrieved at the way Cowen handled not only the last referendum but the run-up to the vital EU summit in December. They both felt a lack of genuine engagement with them in the search for a way to ratify the treaty.

Cowen will now have to engage genuinely and openly with both of them whenever he holds the referendum. While they are still strong supporters of a Yes vote, the two Opposition leaders have consistently expressed the view that the referendum should not be held until the autumn. However, both may change their minds if they can be persuaded that an early Yes vote is clearly in the national interest.

Our European partners would certainly be open to the merits of a faster timetable. They were persuaded last December to give us a much longer timetable than they really wanted only out of desire not to embarrass the Government. They would have no real difficulty in fast-tracking the process from October to early summer if that is what the Government wants.

There is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by seizing the moment and pressing ahead with an early ratification.

The country will benefit, the Government will benefit and the Opposition parties can have their day in holding Cowen and his colleagues to account in the European and local elections in June. If they stand by the national interest in getting Lisbon ratified first it will be a sign of their fitness for office rather than of political weakness.