The Irish in Lisbon

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: If Ireland votes “no” the consequences could be severe: There is no plan “B”.

An excerpt of a lecture delivered by Rep. of Ireland Ambassador Frank Cogan at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna on Sept. 22, 2009. 

The success of transforming Ireland from a rather poor and backwards state on the edge of Europe, living in the shadow of a larger neighbour, to the modern self-confident and progressive country of today owes a lot to the experience of EU membership over the past 36 years.

Commentators, both Irish and European, agree that Ireland has played a very positive role in Europe, sometimes being described as a very pro-Europe, a model member state.

When Ireland held a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008, the result was rejection – 53.4% to 46.6%, with a participation rate of 53%, to the surprise and disappointment of our government and of our EU partners. The Treaty had been approved by the national parliaments of the great majority of member states and their instruments of ratification have already been deposited.

Following a draft EU “Constitutional Treaty” of 2004, the “new” Lisbon Treaty would keep the essential changes – for example, to the decision-making procedures, the extension of co-decision and qualified majority voting, the provision for a permanent President of the European Council. But it would drop the more ambitious – some would say Federalist – trappings of the Constitution, such as the title, the format and adornments such as the references to the flag and the anthem.

The decision of the Irish voters had to be respected.  Although the member states wanted the process of ratification of the Treaty to proceed, it was accepted that Ireland should be given time to make a full appraisal and return to the European Council at a later stage.

Subsequently, the Government commissioned research to identify the key concerns that underpinned the “No” vote. For voters, rejecting the Treaty related to: the loss of a Commission seat for each member state; a perceived tendency towards militarisation of the EU and threat to Irish neutrality; fears of a threat to independence in taxation policy; general concerns regarding sovereignty in the national parliament, e.g. on workers’ rights; and concerns regarding ethical issues such as abortion.

When it met in December 2008, the European Council noted these concerns and provided the Treaty enters into force by the end of 2009, agreed on a set of arrangements designed overcome these objections:

The European Council agreed that the Commission would continue to include one national per Member State. They also agreed to legal guarantees on: taxation, Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality, the right to life, education and the family.

In addition, it was agreed that core European Union values would be confirmed, including the importance of

– social progress and the protection of workers’ rights;

– public services as an indispensable instrument of social and regional cohesion;

– the responsibility of Member States for the delivery of education and health services; and

– the essential role and wide discretion of national, regional and local Governments in providing, commissioning and organizing non-economic services of general interest.

The most recent opinion polls all show a strong trend in favor of a “Yes” majority, by a margin of approx 62-38%. This indicates a recovery after a dip in early September following the initial poster campaign by the “No” side. This “No” campaign was spearheaded by the controversial COIR group, which has been accused by treaty proponents, including Commission President Barroso, of spreading lies and false propaganda against the Union.

However, past experience shows that it would be very unwise for the “Yes” side to be in any way complacent on the basis of these polls. There is still a sizeable segment of “Don’t knows” (around 21% according to some polls).

Opinion can be influenced by developments that have nothing to do with the core campaign issues as the date for the referendum approaches, and two weeks before the vote, it is still too early to call the result with any degree of certainty.

Ireland is, of course, not the only member state that still has to ratify of the Treaty. If the result is a victory for the “Yes” side, then attention will shift from Ireland to the other member states which have delayed ratification for one reason or another. But the general expectation is that the Treaty will come into force as planned on 1 January 2010.

The government, the Commission and other European leaders have all refused to speculate on what will happen if the Irish voters deliver another negative result on Oct. 2. There is no plan B. It would be back to square one.

But if that were to come to pass, as President Barroso said recently, the consequences for both Ireland and Europe could be severe.

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