Irish veto

Published : Jul 18, 2008 00:00 IST

Supporters of the no campaign in Dublin during the ballot count for the Lisbon Treaty referendum on June 13. - PETER MUHLY /AFP

Supporters of the no campaign in Dublin during the ballot count for the Lisbon Treaty referendum on June 13. - PETER MUHLY /AFP

The E.U. is not ready to take Irelands no vote against the Lisbon Treaty as an answer and looks to circumvent the verdict.

THERE is a whiff of deja vu about the crisis in the European Union over the future of the controversial Lisbon Treaty after Ireland rejected it in a tense referendum on June 12. Remember the crisis over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992? Or the crisis after Ireland said no to the Nice Treaty in 2001? Or the one in 2005 after the French and the Dutch threw out the E.U. draft Constitution?

It is often said that the E.U. loves a crisis and would probably invent one, if there was none, just to keep adrenalin running. As pointed out above, the E.Us recent history has been plagued by a series of crises, mostly self-inflicted and arising out of a combination of competing power play among member-countries, complicated bureaucratic procedures, an obsession with structures (treaties, constitutions, memoranda, all in dense legalese that few can understand) rather than policies and a withering contempt for public opinion.

People must say yes to whatever Brussels proposes, or it will find a way to force it down their throats. The facade is impressively democratic: no major treaty can take effect unless it is ratified by all member-states. But, in practice, the first instinct in Brussels, when the people of a country say no to anything, is to cry foul and declare it a crisis, which is then sought to be resolved in a way that effectively renders peoples democratic wishes redundant.

The present crisis is no different. Essentially, it is the result of Brussels inability to take no for an answer. Under E.U. rules, the Lisbon Treaty designed to streamline the functioning of the expanded E.U. and supposed to come into effect next year is to be regarded as dead even if one of its 27 member-states rejects it.

So, ideally, the E.U.s response to the Irish no vote should have been to accept the verdict, bury the document and carry on without the treaty. That would have been in keeping with the democratic premise of ratification rules. Instead, in true E.U.-style, attempts are being made to circumvent the verdict. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has been given four months to come up with a fix.

But first a word about the Irish referendum. Ireland is the only country that has had a referendum on the treaty because of its unique constitutional requirements, while other E.U. members have simply to ratify it by a vote in Parliament. So far, 19 members the latest being the United Kingdom have ratified the treaty, while the remaining are in the process of doing so.

There is something curious about the Irish verdict. Few countries have gained as much from their E.U. membership as Ireland, which owes its economic prowess almost entirely to the benefits accrued to it as a result of its strong links with Europe. And yet the government, with all the resources at its command and the backing of almost the entire Irish mainstream political establishment, was not able to sell the treaty to the voters.

In contrast, the no campaign conducted by a rag-tag coalition of anti-E.U. groups and bankrolled by a Eurosceptic businessperson managed to swing the vote easily by simply talking up the threat to Irish sovereignty. A whopping 53 per cent of the people voted against the treaty.

Cowen accused the no campaigners of misleading the voters. True. But how come the government failed so miserably to counter their propaganda? Despite opinion polls showing a growing support for the no vote, Cowen maintained that common sense of the Irish people will win out in the end. In the event, they proved him wrong.

It is being said that few voters knew what the heavily legalistic 300-odd page treaty contained, and therefore, it was easy for no campaigners to prey on their perceived fears about its implications for workers rights, Irish sovereignty and issues such as abortion, which is banned in Ireland. The truth is that few even in the yes camp had cared to read the treaty (at least one Minister publicly admitted it), with the result that they did not simply have facts to allay voters fears.

For Cowen, who staked his personal reputation on a yes vote, the verdict has been a big blow. At a post-referendum summit of E.U. leaders in Brussels on June 20, he was made to feel like Europes bad boy who had failed the test.

There were suggestions that, as punishment, Ireland should be excluded from the E.U.s core group comprising members who have already ratified the treaty. This would create a two-speed Europe with the core members in the fast lane and the laggards in the slow one. France and Germany are said to favour this route, but others, including the United Kingdom, are opposed to it.

Despite the Irish no vote the pretence at the E.U. top table is that the treaty is still alive, and the E.U. Commissions chief, Jose Manuel Barroso, has called for the ratification process to continue while the Irish question is resolved. The Treaty of Lisbon has now been approved by 19 member-states. I call on all of those that have not ratified the treaty to continue the ratification process, said Barroso. And in case anyone missed the point, the President of the European Parliament, Hans Gert Pottering, declared that the treaty is very much alive. The argument is that one member-country cannot hold the entire E.U. to ransom. Former French President Valery Giscard dEstaing put it bluntly: The Irish have a right to say no. But a country that represents 0.7 per cent of the European population cannot decide for others.

One solution being tossed around is for the Irish government to call a second referendum after a suitable cooling off period in the hope that next time around the voters would say yes as happened over the Nice Treaty. It has been suggested that between now and the second referendum, Ireland could be offered incentives designed to influence voters. Sinn Fein, one of the main opposition groups that led the no campaign, is reported to have indicated that it is likely to change its mind if Ireland is offered binding assurances on neutrality, workers rights and public services.

Seasoned E.U. observers, watching the drama, say that there is nothing new about what is going on. It is typical of Brussels when faced with an unfavourable verdict. The Economist commented: Europes political leaders react to these unwelcome expressions of popular will in three depressingly familiar stages. First, they declare portentously that the European club is in deep crisis and unable to function. Next, even though treaties have to be ratified by all members to take effect, they put the onus of finding a solution on the country that has said no. Last, they start to hint that the voters in question should think again, and threaten that a second rejection may force the recalcitrant country to leave the E.U.

And that is exactly how they have responded to the latest crisis. While the search for a fudge is on, it is pertinent to point out that the Lisbon Treaty itself is the product of a bigger fudge. It was drawn up as a magic solution to get round the French and Dutch rejection of the E.U. draft Constitution. In what was portrayed as a magnanimous gesture to French and Dutch voters, the Constitution was dumped and replaced with a treaty, named after the Portuguese capital where it was signed in December 2007.

Although it was claimed that the document was simply a compilation of existing treaties and did not propose a fundamental change in the E.U.s relations with its members, it has since emerged that in a number of crucial aspects it is the same old Constitution in a new bottle. Some of those who helped write the failed Constitution, including its principal author, Valery Giscard dEstaing, say that the treaty is 90 per cent the same as the Constitution.

This has fuelled public scepticism about the treaty, which is seen as an expansionist project with a permanent European President and a Foreign Minister. Critics portray it as an attempt to form a United States of Europe, which will take away the national sovereignty of member-states in critical areas. E.U. leaders say that it is nonsense, but have singularly failed to explain it to the people.

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