Walker's World: Ireland votes yes for EU

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Oct. 5, 2009 at 11:46 AM
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ZURICH, Switzerland, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- The convincing "Yes" vote in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty came as a great relief to the leaders of the European Union. EU Commission President Jose Barroso called it "a vote of confidence" in Europe, with understandable exaggeration.

In fact it was a vote of fear, based on the dire economic situation in Ireland, which faces massive budget deficits for years to come after being hard hit by the economic crisis. Without its EU membership and the solidity of the euro currency, Ireland would have been close to bankruptcy.

With humor as black as the Guinness, the wits in Dublin's pubs have been asking all comers to define the difference between Iceland and Ireland. "One letter and about six months" has been the grim reply.

Ireland rejected the treaty in an earlier referendum by 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent in Ireland's June 2008 referendum. But since then, with the country's gross domestic product falling by a fearsome 8 percent, house prices falling even faster and unemployment doubling to 12.6 percent, the mood has changed. Europe looks like a safe haven.

The Irish government won some important concessions from the fellow Europeans to justify the second vote. The first was that Ireland will be a guaranteed a commissioner in Brussels, even though one of the key features of the new Lisbon Treaty was to streamline the EU bureaucracy by slashing the number of commissioners. The second and third concessions were written guarantees of Ireland's neutrality and its abortion laws.

But Ireland's "Yes" vote is not the end of the matter. Europe does not yet have its treaty ratified by all 27 member states. Although the Czech Parliament has voted for it, the euroskeptic President Vaclav Klaus has yet to add his crucial signature and will not do so until the Czech Supreme Court has certified that it is consistent with the national constitution.

This could take some months, and in the worst-case scenario will delay matters until June, when the British general election looks likely to evict Prime Minister Gordon Brown from Downing Street. He will almost certainly be replaced by Conservative leader David Cameron, who has pledged to hold a British referendum on the treaty, unless all other ratification procedures are complete.

If Britain holds a referendum the result is very likely to be "No," which would precipitate a deep crisis for Europe. Few people outside Britain's Conservatives want this to happen, even though European irritation is growing steadily at Britain's semidetached and sometimes obstructive role in the EU.

Even Cameron must be wondering whether he wants his government to be defined by such drama, when the economic crisis looks likely to command his attention. And the prospect, however distant, that it would raise of Britain withdrawing from the EU would make that economic crisis very much more acute.

So a great deal of pressure is going to be exerted on the Czechs in the coming months to get Klaus to add his signature to the Lisbon Treaty before June. Some of that pressure may well come from Cameron, although he may also be hoping that he can use the crisis to wring some more concessions from the EU. He could well seek to reduce Britain's payments into the EU's coffers as Margaret Thatcher did 30 years ago or to accelerate reform of the EU's market-distorting Common Agricultural Policy.

And even if one assumes that Klaus signs and the British do not get their referendum, it is an open question how much difference the Lisbon Treaty will make to the ramshackle way the EU runs its affairs.

The headline changes the Lisbon Treaty will bring are to give the European Council (where the 27 heads of government meet to take the big decisions) a permanent president with a three-year term and a foreign minister. This may make Europe's place on the world stage look more coherent. But it is unlikely to stop the big powers -- Britain and France and Germany -- from pursuing their own often divergent foreign policies.

And much of the new EU leaders' time will be spent defending Europe's currently overweight presence in the U.N. Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and other world bodies that have yet to take full account of the shift in economic weight to China and other emergent economies.

There will be other deeper changes, increasing the power of the European Parliament and eroding the role of the Commission, the EU's bureaucracy. But the one likely to catch the public imagination will be the choice of the new president. For want of other credible candidates, this could well result in the return of Gordon Brown's predecessor as prime minister, Tony Blair. And given the looming threat of a British referendum voting "No," that would be a very strange irony indeed.

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