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Irish Referendum Marks End Of An Era For EU

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in June 2008.

Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in June 2008.

BRUSSELS -- Ireland's voters on October 2 will decide the fate of the EU's Lisbon treaty -- the bloc's second attempt to streamline the way it does business after taking in 12 new countries between 2004-07.

EU politicians and observers alike agree the Irish referendum -- the country's second after the first one failed in June 2008 -- is the Lisbon treaty's last chance to come into effect.

Polls suggest the "yes" camp will prevail this time in Ireland. But even so, the fight would not be over yet, with the Czech Republic and Poland both delaying ratification. In any case, the EU's recent experience of successive referendum reverses has taken the some of the wind out of the bloc's sails.

If approved, the Lisbon treaty would herald a spate of important institutional changes for the EU. Member-state veto rights would be rolled back -- albeit not in areas crucial for sovereignty such as foreign, budgetary, or tax policy. The office of an EU president would be created and the position of the bloc's foreign policy chief would be strengthened.

Member-state voting rights would be adjusted to better reflect their size. The European Parliament would get wider powers.

But a sense of gloom and "treaty fatigue" hangs over the EU these days. The way the bloc's attempts at self-improvement have met with referendum failure has come close to breaking its spirit. Denmark rejected the Maastricht treaty in 1992. The Irish rejected its successor, the Nice treaty, in 2001. The French and the Dutch torpedoed the constitutional Rome treaty in 2005. The Irish, again, said 'no' to the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

Each of these defeats had solid domestic reasons -- referendums are notorious for giving vent to voter grievances that have little or nothing to do with the issue at hand. But the way the popular will keeps tripping up grand EU projects cannot but undermine their legitimacy.

No Panacea

The second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty will therefore be no panacea for a troubled bloc. Either way, there will be complications.

Janis Emmanouilidis, a senior policy analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, tells RFE/RL that an Irish 'no' would definitely mean the end of the treaty.

"If they say no -- which I personally don't think they will -- that means that the Lisbon treaty is dead, obviously," Emmanouilidis says. "Then the next step would be to see what one could [do about it].... They would have to find ways in which they would be able to implement [at least] some of the innovations of the Lisbon treaty."

An Irish "yes" is a far more likely outcome, opinion polls suggest -- although last time around, in June 2008, the "yes" campaign also seemed to have the upper hand before voting day.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan has repeatedly said there will definitely be no third referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

Whatever the EU then wanted to retain of the Lisbon treaty, it would have to work piecemeal into other future treaties. Adding protocols to accession treaties, Emmanouilidis says, would be the easiest way to do this.

But clearly, the legitimacy of most of the Lisbon treaty's more far-reaching reforms would founder along with the collapse of the treaty.

Other EU leaders have tried to bring pressure to bear on Ireland by issuing vague warnings that the country's future position in the EU is at stake. But privately, EU politicians concede there is little if anything the bloc will be able to do to "punish" Ireland in case of a "no" vote. Nor can the bloc's other member states really afford to be seen to sanction a fellow nation for its democratic decision.

Ireland could theoretically be deprived of its seat on the European Commission, the EU's executive, as the Nice treaty which is currently in force, says the number of commissioners must now be smaller than that of EU member states. But it is unlikely that other small member states would go along with making an example of Ireland in this fashion. A ready compromise has in fact already been suggested by the EU's current Swedish presidency -- the size of the commission could be reduced by one, and the position of the EU's foreign policy chief added to the pool of officials to make up the numbers.

There is also little enthusiasm within the EU for the idea of a "multiple-speed" Europe, in which some member states would forge ahead with closer integration leaving others behind. Germany in particular has been reluctant to contemplate the notion.

The Czech Problem

An Irish "yes" is a far more likely outcome, opinion polls suggest -- although last time around, in June 2008, the "yes" campaign also seemed to have the upper hand before voting day.

"In the case of a 'yes,'" Emmanouilidis says, "the situation is also very complicated because despite an Irish 'yes,' the mission is not accomplished, because mostly of the Czech problem. You still have have the open issue of Poland, but it seems -- at least that is my information -- that [President Lech] Kaczynski would not [renege] on what he has declared more than once, which is that he will sign the Lisbon treaty when the Irish have said yes."

Czech President Vaclav Klaus (file photo) is a strong opponent of the Lisbon treaty.
Members of the Czech Senate have now twice taken the Lisbon treaty to the country's constitutional court and could keep employing the same delaying tactic to enable the country's famously eurosceptical President Vaclav Klaus to refuse to sign the Lisbon treaty into law. This could play into the hands of Britain's Conservative opposition, which has said it would put the treaty to a referendum if it has not been ratified by the time of the next British general election -- which must take place no later than May 2010 and which the conservatives seem poised to win.

Should the Lisbon treaty come into force, the EU would face a long period of institutional adjustment. Its new president and foreign minister would need to carve out their roles in an already crowded leadership structure, jostling for position with the presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as the holders of the six-month rotating Presidency, which practice will continue, albeit in a limited fashion.

End Of An Era

Whatever the result of the Irish referendum, the era of big EU projects is over, at least for the foreseeable future. Politicians and officials in Brussels are increasingly harking back to Jean Monnet, one of the EU's founding fathers, who favored a gradual, step-by-step approach to European integration.

There are already plenty of signs that such an EU would be significantly more inward-looking than has been the case over the past decade. Germany has made it clear that even with a new treaty in place, a "period of reflection" of unspecified length will be required before the bloc can countenance further enlargement.

France also remains notoriously enlargement-shy, and most other Western European nations suffer from similar "enlargement fatigue." Croatia is likely to make it into the EU in the next few years, but everyone else is likely to be kept at an arm's length for the foreseeable future.

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