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The European Union after the Irish Referendum

Commentary, 17 June 2008
International Institutions, Europe
As the Irish reject the Lisbon Treaty, what are the options are left for the European Union as key member states seek ever closer union?

As the Irish reject the Lisbon Treaty, what are the options are left for the European Union as key member states seek ever closer union?

Despite the excitement following the Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty, some things do not change in Europe.

Whenever a European nation gets the rare opportunity to vote on a new EU document, it is invariably threatened that, unless it approves that document, ‘dire consequences’ would ensue; the choice is, supposedly, always between ‘being inside the EU, or outside it’.

But, no sooner had that nation voted against approving a treaty, and the tune in Europe changes. The negative result has ‘nothing to do with Europe’, the refrain goes; it is all due to ‘irrational’ fears about matters which are unrelated to the treaty under discussion or, simply, the inclement weather.

Before a EU referendum, everyone claims that there is no ‘Plan B’: voters have no choice but to approve or reject a treaty. But, the moment the referendum’s outcome is negative, plans ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ quickly appear.

Everyone claims to ‘respect’ the outcome of a referendum. Yet in the same breath, all officials are putting forward proposals to by-pass the negative vote of the country concerned.

And, a few weeks thereafter, some clever bureaucratic wheeze is invented, with the purpose of subverting the opinion of the rebelling nation. A new referendum can then take place.

Theoretically, the process can be repeated ad infinitum until, of course, the result is the required ‘yes’. And Europe then moves on, with ‘one purpose and destiny’, and all with the ‘full democratic backing’ of its nation-states.

True to form, this is precisely what has happened after the results of the latest Irish referendum became known last Friday. Everyone claimed to ‘respect’ the verdict of the Irish. But everyone also asserted that the Irish electorate, which stands for barely 1 per cent of the EU’s total population, cannot hold the rest of Europe to ransom.

So, just about the only issue on which European leaders now agree is that, despite the Irish rebuff, the Lisbon Treaty is not dead. ‘Other nations must continue their ratification process, so that the Irish incident does not become a crisis’, said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country is taking over the rotating leadership of the EU at the end of this month. And even the British - otherwise among the most sceptical of EU nations - are determined to soldier on: ‘I think it’s right that we follow the view that each country must see the ratification process to a conclusion’, said Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Indeed, Mr Miliband was so keen to show that the consensus on the issue is large that he roped the UN Secretary-General into the process. He had ‘obviously, discussed the issue too with Ban Ki-moon’, he said on Friday, seemingly oblivious to the fact the UN Secretary-General has no standing or practical interest in the issue. But it did not matter: the air of political determination was impressive.

Needless to say, all these arguments are humbug. Just consider the following:

  1. Whatever European leaders now say, the Lisbon Treaty cannot be ratified without Ireland’s approval.
  2. In the absence of Dublin’s ratification, asking other European parliaments to continue ratifying a document which will clearly have to suffer some important amendments represents a waste of time.
  3. It is unworthy of Europe to claim ‘respect’ for the Irish vote, but then immediately set it aside by vowing to continue applying a treaty the people of Ireland have rejected.
  4. It is impossible to argue that the Irish vote was just a fluke. The people of Ireland have rejected the treaty down with a convincing 53.4 majority, on a larger than expected turnout.
  5. As everyone knows, had the opportunity to vote on the Lisbon Treaty been available to other European nations, the results would have been the same: a rejection.
  6. While it is true that the people of Ireland were swayed in their vote by a whole host of otherwise irrelevant considerations – such as fears that their abortion legislation may be changed, or that they would be required to serve in a ‘European army’ – the reality is that the blame for this confusion lies with the governments which drafted the Lisbon Treaty in such an obtuse, ridiculous way.
  7. Finally, while Ireland may a small country, and while only 25 percent of those entitled to vote in that country actually turned the Lisbon Treaty down, the fact remains that these are the rules of the game, and the treaty is dead. Quite a few national European governments are in power today on the tiniest of electoral majorities, or as a result of coalition arrangements which do not represent the express wishes of their electorates. Yet these governments consider themselves legitimate because they are the outcome of national electoral processes which followed local rules; it is silly to suggest that rules should be set aside in the case of Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty should be applied, just because the Irish are few and far between. Breaking established legal procedures is not what democracies should be all about.

So, what are the alternatives at the moment? The first, and most obvious one considering Europe’s history is simply to ask the Irish to vote again, until they produce the required result. That, after all, is what they did after they rejected the previous Nice Treaty in a referendum in 2001. ’The Irish will have time to think and see whether, with a few mediations or a request from their part, they can re-vote’, suggested France's European affairs minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet over the weekend.

But this now looks like a pipedream. First, there is a limit to how many times one can repeat the same trick of asking the people to vote again. The Irish government itself has acknowledged this, by admitting quite openly that a re-run of the referendum may result in an even stronger negative vote, and complicate Europe’s task even further. And, in any case, Ireland’s political parties are already breaking up ranks on this issue. The Labour Party - one of the country’s key political movements - has already quashed the option of a referendum re-run: ‘it would be an insult to put the same package to Irish voters again’ warned Eamon Gilmore, its leader. Given the fact that the Lisbon Treaty was rejected despite total support from all but one of the parties in the Dail (the Irish parliament) it is inconceivable that it will pass in another vote with some of the political parties opposing it. So, this option is gone.

Another possibility is to renegotiate the failed treaty. This is what happened when the people of France and the Netherlands were given the rare opportunity to vote on a proposed EU constitution in 2005 and said ‘no’. Their vote had no effect, for the dead constitution was still incorporated into the current Lisbon treaty, after a suitable period of ‘reflection’ in the EU. But this option does not look very likely either, since nobody in Europe wants to reopen a deal which took years to negotiate. Besides, everyone is tired of new treaties and arrangements. And there is no guarantee than a new treaty would not be rejected in another EU member state.

Theoretically, there is always the possibility of negotiating special Irish op-outs on the existing Lisbon Treaty. This is what Denmark did after rejecting the Maastricht Treaty, and what Ireland obtained after rejecting the Nice Treaty. Some compromises are already touted. Under one possibility, the Irish will be promised that they will still be allowed to have an EU Commissioner all the time, rather than every ten out of fifteen years. Others are suggesting the drafting of a separate ‘bridging treaty’ which would allow Ireland to stay outside the Lisbon Treaty for a while – until Croatia joins as an EU member in 2009 or 2010 – but still allow the rest to go ahead with the Lisbon Treaty.

But, again, all these proposals are ultimately nonsense. First, there is no precedent for keeping the Irish out, while still applying the treaty. How would the new President of the EU be elected? On what basis would a new EU diplomatic service be established? All these things would require the legal application of the Lisbon Treaty, which cannot happen without Ireland’s ratification. So, at the very least, the other twenty-six member-states would have to adopt a new protocol, which would have to be ratified by their parliaments, a momentous task. And does anyone seriously suggests that it may be possible to give Ireland a concession on its permanent membership of the EU Commission, but avoid giving the same concession to other small or medium-sized member-states? To do so would be tantamount to encouraging further negative referendum votes in other countries: a precedent would be created that nations which vote against the EU are rewarded with concessions which their politicians failed to obtain during the negotiation phase of treaties.

The last, and most significant option is one which has been touted for years: the creation of a two-speed Europe, divided between a ‘hard core’ of nations which accept all obligations (or, more correctly, nations which do not have referendums and therefore ratify everything) and a set of other nations which remain on the periphery of the EU, accepting some obligations, but not others. This is what was envisaged in the joint Franco-German statement issued immediately after the results of the Irish referendum became known; the ‘Club of the Few’ as Jean-Claude Junker, the leader of Luxembourg – that European superpower – suggested over the weekend.

The British, who have long dreaded such a development, hope that the French and Germans are just bluffing. But, if French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel formally present their proposal at the EU summit this Thursday, London is guaranteed to scupper it. Sources close to British premier Gordon Brown have already let it be known that he is prepared to see the Lisbon treaty collapse, rather than witness the creation of a two-tier Europe.

In reality, nobody should get too worried about the possible creation of a two-tier Europe, for the following reasons:

  • There is no legal precedent and no idea how this could come about, without either breaking existing treaty obligations, or creating a new EU from scratch
  • A two-tier Europe was a possibility, at least in political terms, before the latest rounds of enlargement. It is impossible now, for the simple reason that, apart from Britain and the Scandinavian nations, all the East European countries are going to reject it
  • A two-tier Europe dominated by France and Germany used to be a realistic, potent alternative in the past. Nowadays, France and Germany on their own cannot run Europe; they know it, and so does everyone else apart, perhaps, from Luxembourg which evidently still believes that ‘Europe’ still amounts to just a few rich states on the Western tip of the continent
  • A two-tier Europe with Ireland in the Eurozone but outside other obligations makes no sense, even if – by miracle - it can come about.

People who dream about such a project have little idea what they are proposing. A two-tier Europe would be an invitation for Russia to reassert influence in Eastern Europe. It would tear apart the EU from inside and unleash a furious diplomatic game: just imagine Poland’s reaction to such a decision. And it will bring about the collapse of the Euro; few international investors would be persuaded that a common currency can maintain its value under such dire political circumstances.

The odds, therefore, remain that, despite all their bickering, EU leaders will ultimately have to accept the death of yet another cherished project: the Lisbon Treaty will be put to rest, and the continent will just have to bumble along, warts and all.

Robert Kagan, an acute American commentator, recalled over the weekend that he once used to wonder what future influence the EU would have. No longer: he is now doubting whether Europe ‘will even participate in the twenty-first century’.

Jonathan Eyal
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

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