Second poll still on agenda, despite Sarkozy's sweet talk


European Council could sway some Irish voters by promising one commissioner for each state if treaty is passed, writes Vincent Browne

NICOLAS SARKOZY was less irritating than anticipated. He was actually charming during his Dublin visit. Meeting a sample of representative opinion was not just good public relations, it was also politically clever and, very likely, instructive.

But don't be fooled, the agenda remains: Ireland to hold a second referendum on the same Lisbon Treaty some time in 2009, probably early 2009. And Nicolas Sarkozy unwittingly offered an argument for voting "Yes" that some might find persuasive.

I visited Brussels in the last few weeks and met several people in the European Commission. Some argued that the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty was not quite as trivial as many, myself included, had argued. Yes, the EU had continued to function under the existing decision-making mechanisms with 25 and latterly 27 member states over the last four years. Yes, there was no gridlock, there was no chaos.

But, they insisted, there were serious problems and one of them had to do with the six-month EU rotating presidency. Almost every head of government who held the presidency for six months assumed a grandeur, a self-importance. And while this was vaguely entertaining at times, it was also an obstruction.

Almost every one of these heads of governments came into the role with their own grandiose agenda. They were going to "sort out" the EU, going to take "bold" initiatives on climate change or energy security or whatever you're having yourself.

The agreed EU agenda was of only passing concern for them as they did their own grandstanding on the international stage. They got to meet other "heads of state", such as George Bush and Vladimir Putin (when he was president of Russia) and the Chinese guy, the Japanese prime minister. Very Important Persons.

And, invariably, they (the rotating EU presidents) lost the run of themselves. But worse than that, because they were around for only six months, they didn't have time to get over the giddiness of office. They didn't have time to get to know the ropes, to master the real agenda and to get to know the people with whom they were negotiating.

Nobody quite volunteered the view but all smiled in agreement when I suggested that perhaps the French were the worst and that probably Nicolas Sarkozy will turn out to be the worst of the French heads of government in recent memory, which is saying quite something. This may have been unkind both on my part and on theirs because of the way he managed to submerge his ego on his Dublin visit, but the general point about the rotating presidency remains valid.

There is an initiative that the European Council (that is the heads of government meeting together) could take that might swing the Irish vote and that would not require the renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty. Remember, a swing of just 4 per cent would do the trick here.

The Nice Treaty (ie the existing constitutional arrangement) requires the number of commissioners to be reduced below the number of EU member states. This could cause real problems in November of next year, for if there is not unanimous agreement at the European Council on reducing the number of commissioners, then the new commission, which enters office on November 1st, 2009, would be invalid and anything done by it would or could be deemed to be invalid. (Incidentally, in a column some weeks ago I failed to acknowledge the existing power of the European Council, acting unanimously, to reduce the number of commissioners.)

However, while the Lisbon Treaty states that the number of commissioners shall be 18 or no more than two-thirds of the number of member states, it gives the European Council the discretion to decide otherwise. So the European Council could decide that henceforth, if the Lisbon Treaty is passed, there shall be a commissioner from each member state. So the shape of a possible deal with the Irish could be as follows: that the European Council, at its meeting in October or December, gives a solemn undertaking that if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified by every member state, including Ireland, it will exercise its discretion to have one commissioner for every member state. This would meet the objections of some people in Ireland to the Lisbon Treaty, perhaps a sufficient number of Irish voters.

It would not do the trick for me and for many others - the issue of the militarisation of the EU through the absorption and funding of the European armaments industry, via the European Defence Agency and otherwise would remain a major issue - but that is not the point. The point is if it would be sufficient to swing the vote here, and it might.

By the way if the Lisbon Treaty is not ratified by November 2009, a way of reducing the number of commissioners, might be to include the secretary general of the commission in the mix - ie to decide that the member state from where the secretary general of the commission comes should not also have a commissioner. That would seem to be a fair arrangement? Incidentally, the present secretary general, Catherine Day, is Irish!