Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe’s future

About the author
John Palmer was formerly European editor of the Guardian and then Political Director of the European Policy Centre. He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Federal Trust

There can be no denying the somewhat surreal nature of the efforts being made to persuade the people of the Republic of Ireland to approve the European Union's Lisbon treaty in a second referendum, now likely to be held in October 2009. The clear "no" majority in Ireland's first referendum to approve the treaty on 12 June 2008 came as a shock to most if not all of the other twenty-six EU countries. With ratification now virtually complete in the rest of the EU, the Irish veto has put the whole process of reforming the way the union functions into cold storage.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Among John Palmer's articles in openDemocracy:
"Europe's enlargement problem" (23 May 2006)

"A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006

"Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

"Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

Meanwhile, a number of large-scale issues and events have emerged or become more acute since discussions about a new constitutional treaty for Europe began - global economic crisis, severe threats of climate change, dangerous regional conflicts, challenging geopolitical shifts, prospects for significant change in United States policy under a new president. All are stretching or will stretch to the limit the capacity of the union to react.

The votes and the fears

But if the Irish "no" was a rude awakening, even more so were the reasons the traditionally very pro-European Irish had for rejecting the treaty (see Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits", 13 June 2008). There is shared agreement on both sides of the argument a number of key issues was decisive in the referendum outcome. These included fears surrounding the possible effects of the treaty:

* that Irish military neutrality might have to be abandoned (and, related to this, that young Irish men and women might in future be conscripted into a "European army")

* that Ireland would lose the right to set its own corporate tax rates

* that Ireland would have to accept "alien" moral values such as abortion rights being imposed on them

* that Ireland would be deprived of the right to have its "own" member of the European commission.

The array of anti-Lisbon-treaty campaigners - ranging from far-right Catholic fundamentalists and neo-conservatives to sections of the far left and the nationalists of Sinn Féin - successfully convinced a majority of Irish voters that some or all of these threats were more or less at the heart of the treaty. Only by rejecting the treaty, the argument ran, could Ireland's neutrality, fiscal autonomy and moral values be protected. Some of the "no" activists added a social tinge, that the Lisbon treaty represented a move away from EU policies that had guaranteed workers' employment rights.

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski,"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

In response, the weak and somewhat perfunctory campaign of the Fianna Fail government of the new taoiseach Brian Cowen - supported by almost all the main opposition parties - protested that none of this was true. They insisted that the Lisbon treaty contained no provisions that in any way threatened Irish neutrality, compromised Irish fiscal autonomy or undermined the state's right to decide its own laws on ethical issues. They also pointed out that the charter of fundamental rights was part of the treaty and would strengthen those campaigning for improved rights for workers or other social groups. Finally they said that the move to reduce the number of commissioners had nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty but had already been agreed by all member-states, including Ireland, when the Nice treaty (2001) had been approved.

These protestations have had little impact on the "no" movement - increasingly led by Declan Ganley, a British-educated multi-millionaire. He now plans to convert his Libertas movement into a political party by linking up with hard-right Eurosceptic parties in other EU countries, to fight the direct elections to the European parliament in June 2009.

The fog of agreement

In addition to their strong if ineffective arguments against the "no" campaigners, the pro-EU parties in Ireland had a fallback position: that if the Irish people refused to believe their claims about the Lisbon treaty, they would get the other EU governments to sign up to a series of clear-cut declarations on the contested issues (among them conscription, tax autonomy, and abortion) to set voters' minds at rest. The "no" campaigners responded in characteristic fashion by raising the stakes, saying they would not accept mere declarations by EU leaders: nothing less than legally binding protocols attached to the Lisbon treaty would suffice.

The trouble is that such legally binding additions to the treaty would necessitate a complete rerun of the protracted and complicated process in each of the other twenty-six European Union countries (see Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary", 21 June 2008).

Thus, when the EU heads of government assembled for their summit in Brussels on 11-12 December 2008, they adopted a way forward that accommodated the particularities of the Irish debate: namely, that legally binding assurances on neutrality, tax and other matters would either be included in the next treaty in 2010 (required to approve Croatia's entry into the EU, and which will have to be ratified by all member-states), or by a further, separate legally binding agreement.

It is a bizarre situation: one where all the governments of the European Union will legally bind themselves not to impose on Ireland measures which none of them ever had the slightest intention of doing in the first place, and for which no provision is made in the Lisbon treaty.

The summit in Brussels agreed to a further move, namely to defer indefinitely plans to introduce a smaller, more effective and more streamlined European commission. This will mean that all member-states in the enlarged union will continue to have a commissioner of "their own". But the fact that members of the commission have to swear an oath that they will not be advocates of the national interest of their country of origin, but rather of the collective European interest, seems to have gone unnoticed. After all, the job of national advocacy is the responsibility of national governments which form the EU's council of ministers.

The core and the periphery

Will these measures work in the sense of helping persuading Irish voters to agree to ratify the treaty in a second referendum? The most recent opinion poll in Ireland shows a swing sufficient to produce a small "yes" majority. But the populist "no" campaigners are confident that they can continue to exploit the fears of people who have read little or nothing of the treaty but who are increasingly sceptical about politicians as a whole and their governments. In the June 2008 vote, the opponents of Lisbon had the great advantage of a slovenly and complacent "yes" campaign. Next time, supporters of Ireland's place at the heart of Europe will have to fight for their political lives.

They have one advantage. There is a growing realisation in Ireland of the possible consequences of a return to power of the Conservative Party in Britain after a 2010 general election - as may still on balance be likely, despite a revival in Labour prime minister Gordon Brown's political fortunes.  If this happens, and in circumstances where the Lisbon treaty is not yet in place, the Conservatives intend to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the European Union. The result may be to detach the United Kingdom - assuming it stays united - from some of the core European Union policies.

Ireland, faced with this prospect, will have some very difficult choices to make between a future as part of a core Europe, or joining a new semi-detached and London-centred periphery. For Ireland to return to the British orbit (and perhaps rejoin the Commonwealth) would be a strange victory for Sinn Fein and other anti-British nationalists. It is a small indication of how the stakes for Ireland, and for the rest of Europe, are about to get even higher.