Ireland

There is something fishy about the race to fill two of the biggest jobs going in Europe – the first long-term presidency of the European Union, and the post of EU foreign policy chief.  The closer the EU gets to decision time, the more various unofficial candidates are ruling themselves out or running into difficulties.  As far as concerns the presidency, the latest person to say she doesn’t want to be considered for the job is Mary Robinson, the former Irish head of state.

In some ways, it’s a shame.  The politically independent Robinson commands much respect across Europe and beyond – more than certain candidates I could mention from Belgium and Luxembourg.  It would also be a clever move on the part of the EU’s 27 leaders to put a woman in the presidency and so boost the EU’s profile in the eyes of its citizens. 

Read today’s analysis in the FT of the consequences of Ireland’s vote on the Lisbon treaty. Follow this link:

EU embarks on voyage of discovery after Lisbon 

A couple of months ago, some European Union policymakers talked despairingly of how 2009 risked turning out to be “a wasted year”.  Now the EU is on a roll.  The impasse over José Manuel Barroso’s reappointment as European Commission president was removed last month when the European parliament stopped playing games and renewed his term of office.

And all of a sudden, it looks as if “a decade of deadening debate over the European Union’s institutional shape” – as British foreign secretary David Miliband puts it in today’s FT – will soon come to an end, after Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty produced a massive majority in favour.  It may not be long before the EU has its first full-time president, a new head of foreign policy and a new Commission with a five-year mandate serving under Barroso. 

Victories in referendums rarely come as big as this.  With full results in from more than half Ireland’s constituencies, the pro-Lisbon treaty camp is ahead by 66.8 to 33.2 per cent.  What’s more, the turnout is high – almost 59 per cent, compared with 53 per cent when Irish voters rejected the European Union’s Lisbon treaty in June 2008.

No wonder Irish premier Brian Cowen looks like the cat that’s been served the cream (when he and his party are annihilated in the next Irish parliamentary election, he can always say he did the noble thing on Lisbon before perishing).  And no wonder Irish big business is pleased, too.  They were very visible on the Yes side during this campaign and they needed a convincing result to justify the money and effort. 

The early results look pretty conclusive: Irish voters have approved the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, possibly by a very large margin.  A poll by the opposition Fine Gael party suggests the pro-Lisbon forces may have taken between 60 and 65 per cent of the vote.

That would be a comprehensive turnaround from the 53.4 to 46.6 per cent victory for the No camp in the June 2008 referendum in Ireland.  Voters in Dublin seem to have given overwhelming backing to the treaty, according to RTE, the Irish state broadcaster. 

Voting in Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty got off to a pretty slow start at one polling station I went to in central Dublin this morning.  By 8am, an hour after the polls opened, fewer than a dozen people had arrived to cast ballots.  Nevertheless, it struck me as significant that two voters told me that they had switched to voting Yes from No in Ireland’s June 2008 referendum on the treaty.  By contrast, no one said they had switched to No from Yes.

In the 2008 referendum, the Lisbon treaty was defeated by a margin of 53.4 to 46.6 per cent on a turn-out of 53.1 per cent.  That was a decisive result.  But because Ireland is a small place, with an electorate of just over 3m, the absolute difference between the Yes and No votes was not that great.  Some 862,415 people voted against Lisbon and 752,451 in favour. 

According to Brian Cowen, Ireland’s premier, a No result in Friday’s referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty would raise the prospect of a “two-speed Europe”, with some countries forging ahead with closer political and economic integration and others staying outside.  But isn’t a two-speed Europe the dog that is hauled out of its kennel every time there’s a EU institutional crisis but which, in the end, never barks?

After Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in June 2008, a number of politicians were quick to assert that a two-speed Europe was the only way to keep the European “project” on the road.  Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, who has lived through more EU crises than most of us have had quetsch plum tarts, mused in public that perhaps it was time for a “Club of the Few” to go ahead on their own. 

Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty on Friday should in principle be about the treaty’s contents, not the state of the Irish economy.  But the economy’s collapse over the past 12 months compels both pro-Lisbon and anti-Lisbon forces to confront the question of whether membership of the European Union – and, specifically, of the eurozone – has helped (even saved) Ireland, made things worse, or not made much difference one way or the other.

An interesting angle from which to approach this question is to ask whether Ireland has fared better than another island off the north-west coast of Europe that was thrown into turmoil at almost exactly the same moment last year – namely, Iceland.  Iceland isn’t a EU member and doesn’t use the euro.  Has this accelerated Iceland’s recovery or held it back? 

One day I’ll break the habit of only visiting Ireland when there’s a referendum on a European Union treaty.  It can easily mislead you into thinking that the Irish people like nothing better than a passionate ”national conversation” (as the latest faddish expression puts it) about Europe.  In fact, it is closer to the mark to say, as Eamon Delaney does in an article for the Irish magazine Business & Finance, that “Ireland is an island with a self-absorbed political culture which is not all that interested in overseas affairs”.

Be that as it may, I’m back in Dublin and the contrast with the political atmosphere of June 2008, when Irish voters rejected the EU’s Lisbon treaty on institutional reform, is pretty startling.  Fifteen months ago, businessmen and economists I talked with were in no doubt that Ireland was heading into a recession, but none predicted the whirlwind that has wrought unmatched havoc on the economy and come close to destroying the national banking system. 

Now that José Manuel Barroso is safely re-installed as European Commission president for the next five years, it would be tempting to think that – from an institutional point of view, at least – all is well in Brussels.  Tempting, but wrong.

Once again, it is our old friend the Lisbon treaty that is the problem.  On October 2 Irish voters, who rejected the treaty in a referendum in June 2008, will have the chance to reverse their verdict.  Opinion polls indicate that the Yes camp will win this time.  But there is an unmistakeable air of nervousness at the European Union’s headquarters that the polls may not be a reliable guide to the eventual outcome.