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Lisbon: The Brussels View

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I travelled to Brussels this week with a group of Irish journalists on a media trip to the EU which co-incided with the Summit. In the two days leading up to the Summit we met a number of Irish and non-Irish MEPs, several senior officials in the Commission and Parliament (including the highest ranking civil servant in the Commission, Catherine Day), (embattled?) Commissioner McCreevy, and President of the European Parliament.

That much of the subject matter centred around Lisbon (I would say two thirds) at a time when the financial system is falling apart tells us how high up the agenda Lisbon has remained – and will remain. If there was an overall message it was this: that completing the reforms set out in Lisbon is more important now than ever, that this is mostly a problem Ireland needs to resolve, and that regardless of Ireland’s ability to sign off, this reform process is going to be brought to a close.

Irish MEPs and officials frankly admitted that the No to Lisbon has made their job harder – not just in dealing with colleagues, but dealing with third parties as well. One MEP said that in dicussions with American companies thinking about investing in Ireland that the No has thrown up a cloud of confusion about whether Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe.

Some of the Irish officials were at pains to explain that the vast bulk of political measures signed off in the Union come about after compromise, trading negotiating points, and building alliances with other states. This, they now claim, has become more difficult.

But, we asked, Lisbon doesn’t bring in clear measures which would tackle the financial crisis? True, we heard, but the fact that the Union has waged a decade long internal battle to streamline its institutions and to equip itself for the twenty first century has undermined its ability to act as a unit. They also added that in the end it is getting more important, not less, to be able to reach a common position on key international issues. In that sense they stressed the difficulty the French presidency faced in getting a unified statement on issues from Russia’s invasion of Georgia to the Financial crisis. In the end the French succeeded in twisting enough arms to get a unified face, even if there were hiccups in between.

The argument went that if say Malta chaired the Union now that it is simply not credible that the EU could have brokered a fairly quick ceasefire in Georgia – even if the aftermath has been imperfect. The rotating presidency, we were told, is a very real problem. Foreign leaders need to meet a dozen different presidents in the space of a few years, all of whom are also doing their day job of running a country. Continuity is required.

It’s Ireland’s problem. Ireland, they said, signed off on this as a government and failed to deliver. True the Irish people were asked but nearly all of the EU people we spoke to lamented the Yes campaign for being incompetent and half hearted. The views ranged from disappointment that the Irish government ran such a pathetic campaign, to near contempt for the Irish government’s incompetence, to one outright claim that Brian Cowen should have resigned after failing to convince the Irish people on the deal which he was instrumental in brokering. And yes, when questioned about the French No, the speaker said Chirac should have gone too.

Overall the message was that in December Brian Cowen doesn’t just need a set of proposals and ideas – he needs a solid plan that he is ready to roll on. But what if? Well, some refused to be drawn on it, saying they trust the Irish government will speak very forthrightly to the Irish people and that in consequence of such frank outlining of Ireland’s position that the Irish people would make the right choice. But still what if? What then of Lisbon? we begged.  “What then of Ireland” was the response.

It seemed pretty clear – there will be no substantial opening up of Lisbon. Though not one speaker ruled out the possibility of retaining a commissioner. But no reopening of the substantive institutional agreements. The reforms have taken too long and people are simply exhausted. It’s got to be signed off ASAP. That was the message. Europe needs this out of the way.

And the message was clear too – that if Ireland fails to come along, some formula would have to be found to let the others proceed. Personally I feel that those who say this actually want it to be true more than knowing it to be true. Because of course the risk is that if Ireland is sidelined that other states may well object. But is that where Ireland really wants to be?

Among both officials and some MEPS the idea of partial oireachtas ratification was entertained. This has been referred to here at Irish Election in a previous post. While legally possible for a partial parliamentary ratification, I find it hard to believe that the government will have the political capital in reserve to sustain the backlash. Judging by the current budgetary crisis the government may not have any political capital at all – it mightn’t even be in office!

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13 Responses to “Lisbon: The Brussels View”

  1. # Comment by Veronica Oct 20th, 2008 07:10

    Tomaltach,
    Brilliant post, interesting and informative! I’ve heard so many people here say that Lisbon has fallen off the agenda because it isn’t in the media any more. It’s more like a pot of soup moved to the back of a stove and simmering away in the background. Sooner, rather than later, someone will turn the heat up under the pot again.

  2. # Comment by Barry Oct 20th, 2008 14:10

    What arrogance, are they saying that if you come from Malta you are racially inferior to say a creep like Sarkozy, or a corrupt unelected psycho like barosso. It is clear that the best way to get through the current economic crisis is to ignore the eu, and go it alone. More people have voted against the constitution/lisbon treaty than for it, so why are these idiots still forcing it on to us, along with all the lies they insist on repeating about how it is essential for the good of europe. What is good for the UK and for Ireland in particular is to remove themselves from the political quagmire of europe, and go it alone.

  3. # Comment by Tomaltach Oct 20th, 2008 14:10

    Barry,
    Are you trying to argue that the diplomatic weight of Malta, whose economy is 30 times smaller than Ireland’s, equals that of France, the 6th biggest economy in the world? You pull in a ‘racial’ card then, which is absurd.

    Who is best placed to answer the question of whether the EU institutions need reform to work better? I would of thought it would be those who attempt to work those institutions. The EU embodies a huge variety of opinion – national representatives there come from all walks of the ideological spectrum, there are 27 nations, there are all kinds of parliamentary tradition, yet on the whole, there is broad agreement that reform along the lines of Lisbon is necessary.

    I suppose Ireland could attempt to go it alone. But I shudder to think of the kind of decline and isolation we would suffer. Over the last few months Irish banks drew down 69 billion in funding from the ECB. Without which some would have unquestionably gone insolvent and collapsed. It makes our government gaurantee look like a joke – though it is a reasonable attempt to build confidence, in money terms it pales. They mentioned 400 billion or so from the Irish tax payer, but everyone knows that scale will not be necessary and would not be possible. Perhaps we could inject 10 or max, 20 billion. All of which would have to be borrowed, yet we drew down 69 billion basically as a result of eurozone membership

    Your comment underlines the pitiful and dangerous lack of political reality that permeated the No camp.

    I have no problem arguing the merits of shortcomings of Lisbon, but your kind of nonsense deserves to be shot down anywhere and everywhere it is met.

  4. # Comment by Jer Oct 20th, 2008 15:10

    “All of which would have to be borrowed, yet we drew down 69 billion basically as a result of eurozone membership

    Your comment underlines the pitiful and dangerous lack of political reality that permeated the No camp.”

    Hold a minute Tomaltach dont you mean your view underlines the pitiful and dangerous lack of political reality that ccasionaly permeated the No camp.

    Even then I would disgree with you but at least I would not be able to write off your statement as being misrepresentative of an entire segment of the electorate based solely on Barry’s post mixed in with your own prejudice as regards the merit of the treaty.

    You state “Foreign leaders need to meet a dozen different presidents in the space of a few years, all of whom are also doing their day job of running a country.” Either you mean over a 6 year period of else thats hyperbole. Whether your words or from some civil servant in Brussels they are eminently defendable but slightly exagerated no? A small thing I know but you should recognise that the sin of over-dramitisation is one that the yes side often attribute to others but rarely corrects in itself. All adds to mood music of uregency though so a fair tactic.

    For me that part of you enjoyable post that reasonated the most was “Personally I feel that those who say this actually want it to be true more than knowing it to be true.”

    On the drawdown of the funds certainly a valid point but then you have to look at the access the EU derived from our fishing area and the benefit derived by our European partners. In essence they allowed us to realise an asset that we did not have the labour or capital to realise. In return they gave us money. I disagree with those who argue the EU has not benefited Ireland as strongly as I disagree with those who imageine that 69 billion came for free. It did not and it is regrettable that successive govts and campaigners of all hues have not highlighted the broad equity of the swap rather than allowing much of Europe believe we received charity.

    Barry is I think a commentator from a neighbouring state and I would disagree with him in his brief arguments.

  5. # Comment by Simon Oct 20th, 2008 16:10

    It did not and it is regrettable that successive govts and campaigners of all hues have not highlighted the broad equity of the swap rather than allowing much of Europe believe we received charity.

    Fish? Seriously?
    The reason the ECB gave us funds is the same reason as the bank of England gave english banks funds. It is our central bank. That is what central banks do.

  6. # Comment by Jer Oct 20th, 2008 17:10

    Hi Simon, When I read your reply I was thinking hold a minute Simon the ECB is only a recent invention what do you mean. Then of course i looked at the relevant paragraph in Tomaltach’s response and well okay I can see how the fish thing was a bit confusing. Arises from posting during obair you see. I misread and took it as a reference to general subsidies to Ireland over many years and not to those drawn down from the ECB.

    I can see how the fish swap looks a bit incongrous in that light but I have to say when I realised my mistake it made me think of a surrealist scene involving Cowen, Bankers and trucks of fish.

  7. # Comment by Tomaltach Oct 20th, 2008 18:10

    Jer,
    I take your point about using a single post to characterize the entire No camp. I would say, however, that there were many issues on which prominent No campaigners argued points that lacked political reality. There was Sinn Féin arguing that vote No for a better Yes. But they seriously underestimated or, if you are less charitable, misrepresented, the chances of substantial renegotiating. (I don’t want to open up the entire Lisbon debate again but I don’t buy Sinn Féin bona fides here. Mary Lou McDonald argued for a more democratic Europe, yet she barely turns up in the only directly elected institution, the parliament.)

    I spoke to Kathy Sinnot at the Eu parliament last week. She is still in denial and stood out as a lone voice who said we need to start from scratch. I pressed her on whether this was politically possible. She responded with opinions that are to say the least, not mainstream, arguing we need a short, simple straightforward document that will last for two or three hundred years!

    You talked about exaggerating when I mentioned the rotating presidency. Yes, I mean six years. A dozen leaders in six hears, where each is already busy with national issues. One leader may not even have been present at previous meetings. Yes, he or she will be briefed but it’s ardly a substitute for continuity.

  8. # Comment by Tomaltach Oct 20th, 2008 18:10

    Jer,
    I take your point about using a single post to characterize the entire No camp. I would say, however, that there were many issues on which prominent No campaigners argued points that lacked political reality. There was Sinn Féin arguing that vote No for a better Yes. But they seriously underestimated or, if you are less charitable, misrepresented, the chances of substantial renegotiating. (I don’t want to open up the entire Lisbon debate again but I don’t buy Sinn Féin bona fides here. Mary Lou McDonald argued for a more democratic Europe, yet she barely turns up in the only directly elected institution, the parliament.)

    I spoke to Kathy Sinnot at the Eu parliament last week. She is still in denial and stood out as a lone voice who said we need to start from scratch. I pressed her on whether this was politically possible. She responded with opinions that are to say the least, not mainstream, arguing we need a short, simple straightforward document that will last for two or three hundred years!

    You talked about exaggerating when I mentioned the rotating presidency. Yes, I mean six years. A dozen leaders in six hears, where each is already busy with national issues. One leader may not even have been present at previous meetings. Yes, he or she will be briefed but it’s hardly a substitute for continuity.

  9. # Comment by Francis S Codjoe Oct 20th, 2008 18:10

    The Reality is that , Ireland, by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, unconscouslly, heeded to the warning their brilliant father wrote about political Europe and its future. The Unknown truth is that, It was a native of Dublin, who wrote about a politiocal alliance of European nations -how it would develop, its nature and future prospects even before the the French founding fathers of EU – Jean Monnet and Robert Schumam – were born in 1888 and 1886. Whatever the Irishman wrote about EU has come to pass. Indeed the Lisbon Treaty paves the way for his predictioin of the future of Europe to be fulfilled. The Irish people should first examine what their brillinat Father wrote about political Europe before committing their future to the EU. It is the end that crowns the work. Is th erfuture of EU

    The EU might have started well. Ireland has gained from its membership of the EU. But what are the future prospects of EU?. If the passengers who boarded the luxurious Titanic had known that the unsinkable ship would sink on its maiden vioyage, would they have joined the vessel?
    The man from Ulster warned Britain as well. The ‘Seer’ predicted that a politoical Europe would be the next major political feature in history after the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. He has been proved right. The nation of Israel was reborn in May 1948. The EU was born in May 1950.

  10. # Comment by Simon Oct 20th, 2008 21:10

    ok Jer no prob I thought the fish was a bit wierd. If we were talking subsides then of course fish come into it. Although simply Ireland getting better off and being a better trading partner is probably more then enough of a justification of subsides.

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