A Breakthrough in Brussels EU Reaches Deal on Lisbon Treaty

Friday's deal in Brussels paving the way forward for a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland is the most important decision taken in Europe this year. The treaty, which will bring widespread reforms to the European Union and give its institutions greater power, could be go into effect before the end of the year.

By in Brussels

It is part of the ritual of European Union summits for the leaders of the 27 member states to pat themselves firmly on the back. Each one then explains how proud he or she is of what they were able to achieve for their country.

Friday proved to be no exception, with Chancellor Angela Merkel stating that the planned European financial regulations watch dog had been designed in a way that pleased Germany. She said that there had been "considerable movement" on the part of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has been perceived as a sort of defense attorney for London's bankers.

But Merkel's assessment of the agreement with Ireland over a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was noticeably reserved. In such events, Merkel is usually known for using terms like "historic," but on Friday she spoke of a "further hurdle" being cleared, "no more and no less."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels:

Nevertheless, the compromise is the most important decision taken this year in European policy because it means that, after years of painstaking negotiations, a breakthrough for a new EU may be just around the corner. It is now likely that the Lisbon Treaty will go into effect by the end of the year. Then the EU would get a president, a foreign minister and the role of the European Parliament would be strengthened considerably.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen announced the referendum would be held during the first week of October. Public opinion polls currently indicate that Irish voters would likely approve the Lisbon Treaty this time around, following their rejection in a first referendum one year ago. Cowen said the European Council had given Ireland "firm legal guarantees" and that he was "confident we now have a solid basis to go to the Irish people and to ask them again for their approval for Ireland to ratify the treaty so that Europe can move on."

The EU has provided guarantees to Ireland that it will remain independent in determining tax policies, military neutrality and abortion law (Ireland has one of Europe's most restrictive abortion policies). The sovereignty guarantees are expected to be anchored in EU law as a treaty protocol in the mid-term future.

Eschewing Displays of Triumph

EU leaders are no doubt relieved that the Ireland problem seems to have been solved. But on Friday, European leaders avoided celebration. Their dampened enthusiasm is the based on the experience of past few years: They well know just how fragile the Lisbon ratification process remains.

The history of the Lisbon Treaty is a long one. It has been five yeas since EU leaders approved the text of the European constitution in Rome. After the constitution was rejected in two referenda in France and the Netherlands, the draft landed in the waste bin. Under German leadership, however, the text was brought back to life in its current incarnation as the Treaty of Lisbon.

The streamlined treaty was supposed to have gone into effect at the end of 2008. However, another referendum got in the way. Irish voters said "no" and the EU was thrown into yet another crisis. This time the other leaders made it clear that they would not accept the "no" vote. They immediately began to consider how and when a second referendum could be held in Ireland.

One year on, it looks like that referendum will soon take place. The mood in Ireland seems to be favorable: The financial crisis has made people think much more positively about the EU. And now the guarantees of sovereignty have given Cowen further arguments in favor of the treaty.

There were tough negotiations at the summit over those guarantees. Cowen surprised the other EU leaders on Thursday when he said he would need the guarantees entrenched in the treaty. A declaration by the Council would not suffice. Cowen said he could not leave the summit without an undertaking that the Irish special rights would be anchored in a protocol.

It was pure blackmail -- but the EU leaders had little choice but to accept those terms. No one can even consider the Lisbon Treaty failing again. After long negotiations, Great Britain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands agreed that the guarantees would be established in a protocol to be incorporated into a future EU treaty -- likely the one providing for Croatian accession. In particular, the British were appalled at the prospect of having to ratify another protocol to the Lisbon Treaty following the traumatic political debate the first time around.

Bickering over Barroso

Ireland is not alone in not having ratified the Lisbon Treaty. The Czech Republic, Poland and Germany still haven't done so. Germany, for example, must first wait for a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court on Lisbon's legality. However, these are regarded as much lower hurdles than Ireland.

The success over Ireland has been overshadowed by the dispute about Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's second term. While the 27 leaders would like to see his nomination confirmed at the first meeting of the new European Parliament in mid-July, the parliament is demanding more time and is threatening to vote against Barroso.

The divisions are reflected in the German government. While Chancellor Merkel is in favor of July, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that July is "hardly doable." However, he has also called for a speedy clarification as to whether Barroso has the necessary majority in parliament. The candidacy should not be dragged out until September, he argues, because the EU has to be capable of acting.

Merkel has called for "calm and dignified" negotiations over the Barroso issue. However, it is already too late for that. The insistence on a deadline is likely to only increase the opposition within the European Parliament.


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