The Irish send out good vibrations on Lisbon

The Irish send out good vibrations on Lisbon

08 December 2008

by Hugo Brady

Ireland’s parliament – the Oireachtas – recently published a lengthy report on where the country’s relationship with the EU stands after the country’s rejection of the Lisbon treaty by referendum. Initially, I feared the study might be heavy on clichéd pieties about Ireland’s relationship with the EU without really dealing with the difficult political situation created by voting down the treaty or suggesting concrete ways out of the mess. In fact - while it fails to completely avoid the clichés (“Ireland’s position at the heart of Europe” etc) – the analysis, compiled by the parliament’s EU committee, is impressively clear, thoughtful and, in places, prescriptive.

The report sets down some sensible parameters for the debate to come:

• Saying no to the Lisbon treaty automatically implies that some further action must be taken. Legally, the EU can continue as it is with the current treaties. In reality, if the treaty is declared dead, other member-states will find ways of working together more closely. Ireland would become increasingly isolated.

• Ireland’s rejection of the treaty is affecting its ability to “promote and defend” its national interests. This is true across a range of policy areas including the EU’s climate change package, the future allocation of money from the common agricultural policy, and responses to the economic crisis. The report also maintains that over-harsh criticism of Ireland’s moves to shore up confidence in its banks and its exclusion from recently established EU discussion bodies points to its near-pariah status amongst other member-states.

• One of the assumptions underpinning investment by multinational companies in Ireland is that the country is and will remain a full member of the EU. Foreign companies which invest in Ireland are worried about the uncertainty thrown up by the current situation but are sticking with the view that the country will ultimately resolve the issue.

The report then ruled out two options Ireland might take to move on from the Lisbon rejection. First, that the country should accept a self-imposed exile from core European policies to allow the rest of the EU to go ahead. This was the cumbersome and unsustainable option taken by Denmark in the early 1990s when the Danes opted-out of EU foreign policy, citizenship, justice co-operation and the single currency.) The other is to attempt to pass the Lisbon treaty – or even parts of it – by parliamentary ratification alone. Even if legally possible and well-intentioned, the committee rightly concluded this deliberate circumvention of a democratic decision would be ill-advised.

Hence the solution, strongly implied by the report’s analysis, is a second referendum on the treaty. The committee also points out the ways in which Ireland’s conduct of its EU policy can be improved to address public perceptions of a lack of control over law-making in Brussels. One is to give Ireland’s parliament powers to prevent the government signing up to EU legislation it disagrees with. Many national parliaments in the EU have this power. Ireland’s – surprisingly – does not. A second is to create a special EU ‘panel’ in the parliament’s upper house, the Seanad. This would be a sort of ‘wise persons’ committee, nominated on the basis of their familiarity with EU matters, to scrutinise legislation and co-ordinate with Ireland’s MEPs. What is striking about these proposed reforms is that they are both inspired by Ireland's eurosceptic neighbour, Britain, where the scrutiny reserve has existed for decades and the House of Lord’s EU affairs committee is considered an authoritative source of reasoned analysis on EU issues.

The committee also heard evidence from key players involved in the most controversial aspects of the debate last June. (The list includes defence, taxation, public services, ethical issues like abortion, and the size of the European Commission.) The committee conclusively dismissed the fear that the treaty could increase EU powers to set national tax rates. But it did agree that it would be desirable for Ireland to have a European commissioner all the time, to “offer legitimacy to the proposals made by the Commission”. It also recommended that Ireland’s already very strict rules for committing troops to peacekeeping operations be made even more explicit by requiring the approval of a two-thirds parliamentary vote.

The positive and constructive tone struck by the report is very welcome, but it should be borne in mind that almost all political parties in the Oireachtas support the Lisbon treaty. This did not prevent its rejection in June in a popular vote and will not – on its own – prevent a second rejection next year. But the report shows how the moderate centre in Ireland is trying to take back control of the debate from well organised populists of the left and right that have wreaked havoc on the country’s foreign policy and its interests abroad. That damage was neatly summed up by Catherine Day, an Irishwoman, and secretary general of the European Commission. "Ireland's image in the European Union has been tarnished by the 'no' vote”, she told the committee. “I can see every day that it has reduced our ability to shape and influence events in the European Union. Other Member States tend to view us now only through the prism of the Lisbon Treaty.”


Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.