PARIS — A significant “yes” to Europe by the Irish in a reform vote tallied Saturday removes the last main hurdle to a more unified and federal European Union. The result brought great relief (and some Parisian celebratory horn-honking) in many European capitals.
Moreover, the Irish decision may indirectly result in former British prime minister Tony Blair becoming the first fixed-term president of Europe.
Amid deep economic woes, the Irish appeared to have no desire for the isolation from the 27-member European Union that a “no” vote on the Lisbon Treaty would bring. The 67 percent who voted ‘yes’ in Ireland was a higher total than even euro-optimists dared expect.
Ireland — which voted “no” in 2008, in a bit of pre-economic crisis national identity politics — was one of the last hold outs on the treaty. The next hurdle is a euro-skeptical Czech president.
But Ireland’s “yes” now makes it possible for Brussels to quickly move toward change. It gets the EU closer to answering Henry Kissinger’s famous question “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
What the Lisbon Treaty does
The Lisbon Treaty will initiate a common foreign and security structure, including a High Representative or foreign minister. It will streamline decisionmaking by abandoning the current ungainly system of unanimity in favor of majority rule. It also greases the skids to select a president; Mr. Blair is considered the front runner.
(The Financial Times wryly noted what the atmospherics might be like if “EU President Blair” were to visit British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Downing Street, Blair’s former residence.)
The Irish “yes” to Europe is widely seen as less a change of heart than of mind. “The economic crisis is so deep in Ireland that the people don’t want to be isolated,” says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation in Paris.
(Read more about the Celtic Tiger’s collapse here).
“The crisis has brought a desire for Iceland, the Balkans, Ukraine, to join the EU. The reform has come a long way, and today Europeans just want to face the crisis, recover purchasing power, and deal with unemployment. Europe wants to finish this phase of integration.”
Indeed, the consequences of an Irish “no” were considered by most European capitals to be almost too bitter to contemplate. “A ‘no’ by Ireland would have required another decade to settle this at least,” says Thomas Klau of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Paris.
Lisbon is the latest effort to create a stronger federal Europe, dating to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. In 2005, Europe failed to adopt a new constitution after Dutch and French voters said no; the Lisbon treaty was agreed to by the parliaments of most “no” voting states as the size of the EU jumped to 27 from a handful in the 1980s. A “no” by Ireland would also tangle the EU applications for suitor states like Iceland and Croatia.
“There’s already a lot of despondency in Europe over the ability and will to become a relative power,” Mr. Klau adds.
The Czechs are holding out
But there are some bumps in the road ahead. Polish president Lech Kaczynski must sign off, though he publicly promised to do so if the Irish voted “yes.”
A more serious challenge could come from Václav Klaus, the Czech president. The Czech Republic has said “yes” to Lisbon. But Mr. Klaus must still sign, and he may try to stall efforts by the EU to seal Lisbon by the end of the year, citing a legal challenge by 17 Czech senators now before the Czech Constitutional Court. Klaus’ tactic is widely seen as buying time for a possible new government in Britain next May, that many expect would be headed by Tory David Cameron, who has vowed to put the Lisbon Treaty to a public vote, where it would likely fail. The British conservative party has also come out against Blair’s EU presidency.
“Klaus is being unfair,” argues Mr. Giuliani. “All the European heads of state, the Poles and others, will work with Klaus for a normal attitude towards the treaty. The EU is giving the Czechs more than 12 billion euros for new investment. The pressure on Klaus will be quite high.”
It was reported today that Swedish Prime Minster Fredrik Reinfeldt and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will meet with Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer in Brussels this week for a bit of arm twisting.
Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an ardent advocate of Lisbon, warned that there would be economic consequences it the Czechs held out. Mr. Sarkozy is an advocate for Mr. Blair as the first EU president. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another key decider, may push for a president from a country in the eurozone.
The Irish — under a steady stream of “yes” campaigning by business leaders, from Dublin-based Ryanair, the US firm Intel, and others with a significant stake in Ireland and Europe — performed a volte-face from 2008. But the economic crisis made the ‘yes’ sales job much easier, particularly since the EU was helping bail out Irish banks.
“Today the Irish people have spoken with a clear and resounding voice. It’s a good day for Ireland and a good day for Europe,” said Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen Saturday.
Under Lisbon, the EU will install a new commission, inagurate a president with a 30 month term instead of the current rotating six-month state presidency, and create a powerful High Representative in charge of the EU external affairs budget. Education, police and judiciary, and economic policy won’t be shaped by unanimous vote — though foreign policy will. Britain and Ireland can opt out of common security policy; Ireland will still be able to outlaw abortion.