EU forced to react to Ireland’s ‘no’
By Célia Sampol | Friday 20 June 2008
This Friday the 13th is a dark day for Europe: the Irish decided to reject the Lisbon Treaty. And they did so massively: 53.4% ‘no’ against 46.6% ‘yes’, for a voter turnout rate of 53.13%. After the double blow of the French and Dutch rejections of the draft Constitution in 2005, this outcome marks another setback. Despite the shock, Europe’s leaders are calling for continuation of the ratification process in the eight remaining countries.
The results were not known until the afternoon of 13 June since the polls had remained open the day before until 22:00. The announcement of the ‘no’ victory in the referendum in the majority of the country’s 43 constituencies came like a bolt from the blue. Throughout the day, pessimistic signs were being seen in Ireland, with members of the government making negative statements and issuing negative press releases. The (often false) arguments used by the treaty opponents during the campaign prevailed over the desperate attempts of the treaty’s supporters to explain the benefits of this document for the Irish people.
It is now up to the European Union to react. The General Affairs Council, on 16 June in Luxembourg, will address the issue and adopt a decision to change the agenda of the European Council of 19 and 20 June in Brussels. At the summit, the heads of state and government are expected to discuss the issue at their dinner in restricted committee. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen, leader of Fianna Fail (centre-right), will be present. He will be announcing to his partners what he plans to do, ie organise another referendum on an amended text or not. The leaders could then decide to give the future French EU Presidency a mandate to come up with a solution to the crisis.
A Franco-German declaration is expected to be released in any event. The idea was discussed by President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel at their meeting, on 9 June in Bavaria. French State Secretary for European Affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet confirmed this at a meeting with journalists, on 12 June in Paris. These two founding countries are in a good position to spark a reaction. France, which was of course behind the institutional crisis of 2005, subsequently made it possible to relaunch the stalled institutional debate with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘mini-treaty’. It will also be holding the EU Presidency for the next six months. And Germany already had to manage tough negotiations at the summit in June 2007, which hammered out an agreement on the Lisbon Treaty in the early hours of the morning.
The joint declaration by the two countries will likely be limited to the “factual consequences of the vote,” according to Jouyet. It will not initially explore what the Irish verdict makes clear, namely “the dichotomy between citizens’ short-term concerns and the Union’s medium-term strategy,” he added. The document is nevertheless expected to call for continuation of the Lisbon Treaty ratification process in the eight remaining countries (18 have already approved it). For the French state secretary, “it is important to maintain the continuity of the movement in spite of this very regrettable situation”. No one seems to be in favour of abandoning the last eight years of negotiations and keeping the status quo, namely the Treaty of Nice.
TOWARDS ENHANCED COOPERATION?
A number of options can be considered in this context. The first would be to have the Irish vote again on an amended text. However, it would be difficult to tell the Irish once again that their vote does not suit Europe and that they have to start over again, as in 2001. The situation is not the same, moreover, and Ireland would have no negotiating room today, after obtaining everything it wanted in June 2007. But as Jouyet hinted, a “legal arrangement” with this country could be considered, such as the negotiation of new opt-outs, including one on defence – since one of the arguments of the treaty opponents was the fear of losing the country’s neutrality in spite of the declaration existing since Nice affirming the contrary. Other concessions could be granted, on agriculture for example, since France will have the task of managing the famous ‘health check’ of the Common Agricultural Policy during its Presidency.
These are possible options but there is no guarantee that if Ireland votes again, other member states that have not yet ratified may not decide to hold up the process. The United Kingdom or the Czech Republic may be tempted to abandon the ratification process, for instance.
The other alternative would be that, in case of complete non-ratification of the treaty, the common policies and innovations it introduces could be implemented by interested member states by means of enhanced cooperation. Whatever happens, there will have to be a debate on the EU’s legitimacy, its democratic deficit and the need to be more attentive to citizens’ foremost concerns. Because it is very telling that the only country to organise a referendum on this treaty – and what is more, a pro-European state that has received millions of euro in Community aid since its accession in 1973 – has voted ‘no’. This new blow may serve as a wake-up call for the institutions and the member states, spurring them to try to bridge the divide between the European Union and its citizens.
Barroso: A “collective responsibility’”
Accused of inertia and of not having taken a position against the false arguments of the ‘no’ in Ireland, the Commission had to explain itself, on 13 June, on the announcement of the vote’s results. President José Manuel Barroso felt that these accusations were “not fair”. He then announced that Brian Cowen had assured him that the Lisbon Treaty was not dead. “At present, the ratification process must continue. The heads of state and government discuss the matter and see what responses to bring, because they have all signed the treaty and it is a matter of collective responsibility.” For him, the Franco-German initiative could be followed.