Walker's World: The Irish 'No' won't last

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  June 16, 2008 at 11:22 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- The immediate question for Europe's leaders after the Irish referendum rejected the European Union's new "constitutional" treaty by 54 percent to 46 percent is how they will contrive to frustrate the will of the people yet again.

The grandees of Europe do not give up easily, even though their voters have a troublesome habit of saying "No" on those rare occasions when the question of Europe is put. The Danes, the Swedes, the French, the Dutch and the Irish (twice) have rejected the grand European project.

When the Dutch and the French voted against the draft EU constitution, Europe's leaders repackaged its main components in the form of a treaty in order to sidestep the need for a new referendum. The Irish, however, have their own constitution, which requires any major changes to be put to the popular vote. Theirs was the only referendum, and they have said "No."

That should be the end of the matter. The EU still has a legal and functioning treaty (devised at Nice eight years ago) that seems to be functioning tolerably well. The Germans dislike it because the new treaty would give them greater weight in EU affairs and it means a messy Commission of 27 members, one for each country.

But Europe's leaders appear determined to press ahead with the Lisbon Treaty the Irish have rejected. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement: "The ratification procedure is already complete in 18 countries. We hope therefore that the other member states will persevere with the ratification process."

The president of the EU Commission, Jose Barroso, declared: "The treaty is not dead. The treaty is alive, and we will try to work to find a solution."

Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Franco Frattini said: "This is a serious blow to European construction," but "the path of European integration must not however be stopped."

So how will they fudge it? The first plan was simple: get the Irish to vote again until they give the right answer. That was what was done the last time the Irish said "No." Some solemn new EU document that asserted Ireland's right to set its own taxes and to maintain its official neutrality would meet some of the Irish complaints.

But Plan A foundered on the Irish government's instincts for survival. Prime Minister Brian Cowen is against a second referendum, fearing punishment by frustrated voters.

So Plan B is to isolate the Irish. The ratification process will continue so that 26 of the EU's 27 member states will be committed. Then they will cobble the key bits of the Lisbon Treaty onto the new accession Treaty that makes Croatia into a full member late next year or in 2010, and get the Irish (without a referendum) to ratify that. Hey, presto, it is fixed.

That is why French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who will take over the rotating EU presidency next month, called the Irish vote a "hiccup" that should "not become a political crisis."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the key elements of the rejected treaty, like the creation of a permanent EU president and the scrapping of most national vetoes, could be implemented without Ireland. "Ireland for a period of time could leave the way free for the integration of the other 26 member states," he said.

Plan B may well succeed, but at a dangerous cost. Doubtless there were local reasons for all the successive "No" votes in the various countries that held referendums in recent years, but there was a common thread. The European voters are suspicious of their leaders, suspicious of the grand European project, and alarmed the whole EU process seems so remote, so bureaucratic and undemocratic in ignoring or fudging or working around other rejections by referendum.

This issue is acute in Britain, where a referendum on the EU constitution was promised to the voters, but abruptly withdrawn when the constitution morphed into a treaty. On Wednesday Britain's House of Lords is scheduled to give the ratification bill its third reading, which would effectively pass it into law.

"To simply plow ahead on a straight vote to accept or reject the EU (Amendment) Bill is to demonstrate nothing less than a contempt for the democracy on which the European Union is supposed to be founded," commented Lord David Owen, a former British foreign secretary.

But the passionate pro-Europeans do not intend to let the Irish vote derail their project. Richard Corbett, a leading British member of the European Parliament, said: "It is inconceivable that all of the others will simply say 'too bad -- one country has said "No" to the package as it stands, so let's forget reform and stick with the current system for evermore.'"

And the die-hard European federalists have another trick up their sleeve. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who sees himself as the front-runner to be the EU's first new president under the rejected treaty, told German radio the Irish vote showed it was time to press on with a "Club of the Few" countries most committed to building common EU laws and policies, by which he meant the grand project of a federal Europe.

As one of Ireland's "No" voters asked an RTE radio interviewer: "What part of 'No' don't they understand?"

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