Monday, 16 June 2008

Plan C, D or E?

Confusion reigns on how the EU will respond to the outcome of last week's referendum in Ireland, ahead of a European Council meeting of heads of state and government later this week.

On Saturday,
French European affairs minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet minister was quoted on AFP saying there is "no other solution" but for Ireland to hold a second referendum.

Particular interest is being paid to the French position, as the country takes over the EU's rotating presidency from next month and will consequently shoulder much of the burden of driving the EU's response to the Irish 'No' vote.

However, several Irish ministers made clear during the referendum campaign that a re-run would not be feasible.

The much higher turnout this time relative to the first Nice Treaty referendum back in 2001, which was re-run a year later, means there is no clear justification not to mention little political apetite for a second vote.

So, on Sunday, Jouyet was quoted in the Observer talking instead of some "specific means of cooperation" that would provide a purpose to continued ratification, lending credence to earlier speculation about 'legal arrangements' that might allow the Lisbon Treaty to be implemented regardless of the Irish vote.

The way would then be open to bring Ireland back fully into the post-Lisbon EU at a later stage, presumably by applying the pressure of every other country having proceeded without them.

Germany is also behind this approach. "We're sticking firmly to our goal of putting this treaty into effect," the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said. "So the process of ratification must continue."

Not surprising, given the German chancellor Angela Merkel devoted most of last year to getting the EU's 27 governments to agree on the Lisbon treaty after the rejection of the EU Constitution by the French and the Dutch in 2005.

Mixed messages

For its part, the European Commission is sending out mixed signals. Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Friday quickly retailed the 'carry on regardless' line. But a European Commission official was yesterday quoted in the Observer saying "Unless the treaty is ratified by all, there is no treaty."

Our own government also seems to have a foot in both camps. David Miliband rushed onto TV to say that ratification will continue regardless of the treaty's theoretical demise, and Gordon Brown reportedly telephoned the French president to confirm that Britain would proceed with ratification.

Yet, in the Sunday Times a "Downing Street source" echoes that Commission official, saying: "The legal position on this is very clear: the treaty cannot come into force until all 27 countries have ratified it".

'Two-tier' legal option

There's no doubt that the EU tends to treat the legality of its activities as a minor detail, as exemplified by how they have been steadily implementing aspects of the Lisbon Treaty well before it has been approved in all EU member countries.

But Ireland could be given a protocol with what amounts to an opt-out from every policy transfer and veto removal that Lisbon introduces.

It would mean that the new Irish status would have to be resolved before the future dates that Lisbon's institutional changes -
such as the altered structure of the EU Commission and voting weights in the Council of Ministers - are due to come into force.

And it would mean the EU would also have to wait until that time for some other 'constitutional' changes, such as Lisbon's 'self-amending' clause. But this may not be such a burden as treaty changes would not be likely to be needed for at least a few years following ratification.

The political danger for the EU in introducing this 'two-tier' system in respect of entire treaties, however, is that far from becoming the intended suffering pariah, Ireland is actually seen to get along much better without being a 'full member'.

By dodging some looming new EU plans - perhaps on tax harmonisation and militarisation - people in other countries may observe that the semi-detached Irish deal is a more attractive one, and start pressuring their own governments to obtain the same advantageous deal.

Stealthy option

The alternative possibility of many of the changes proposed by Lisbon being introduced under existing EU treaty clauses is talked up in today's Daily Telegraph.

But it begs the question: if that's possible, why didn't they just do that in the first place? Instead of having this extremely damaging near decade-long 'new treaty' wrangle that started with the Laeken Declaration back in 2000.

Clearly there are some integrationist advances within the Lisbon treaty that the EU wants and which cannot be implemented under the current treaty.

But the idea also overlooks one peculiar tendency of the EU; that despite much in the way of greater integration being technically possible under its vaguely-worded treaties, it still always seems to need its 'big projects' to feel it really is advancing.

It's almost as if they consider, were the integration process to appear paused and people allowed to observe the status quo for too long - rather than argue over an element of future integration - too many might just realise that they don't much like the current EU either.

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