Ausgabe 25/2008

Lisbon Treaty in Tatters EU in Chaos after Ireland's 'No' Vote

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Part 2: 'No Great Tragedy'

The Irish disaster was predictable but nevertheless came as a surprise. The political leaders in Dublin, Brussels and the other European capitals realized too late just how bad the mood was among the Irish, even though they had profited from the EU more than any other nation. The Irish economy has been booming since the mid-1990s, with growth rates of 8 to 9 percent.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen feely admits that Ireland's transformation from a "backward agricultural country on the edge of Europe" to one of the continent's economic powerhouses couldn't have taken place without the EU. Since 1973, the country has received a net total of almost €40 billion ($61 billion) from Brussels. The country invested in schools and universities and attracted investors from all around the world with its low corporate tax rates. In particular, American high-tech companies like Microsoft and Dell and pharmaceutical companies like Viagra manufacture Pfizer were attracted to the country.

But then, one or two years ago, the economic wonder began to fade. The real-estate boom came to an end. Around Dublin today, unsellable villas stand on green fields, while new rental properties in the suburbs remain empty. Incomes are unevenly distributed and the rise in prices has once again deprived lower-income groups of their share of the increased prosperity. Many Irish are afraid of too much immigration. Suddenly, practically overnight, the most generous financer of the Irish economic miracle started to look suspect to many people.

Now it's not clear what to do next. The simplest way to get out of the political dead-end would be to persuade the Irish to conduct a second referendum. This approach has already worked well on one occasion, when the stubborn Irish rejected the Treaty of Nice in 2001. Two conciliatory qualifications were added to the document, which then passed without a hitch with 63 percent of the vote in a second referendum a year later.

But Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has already rejected a second vote à la the Nice model. The EU would have to offer the Irish substantial changes to the treaty, he said, if a second vote was to be held. But every change to the text would inevitably mean a return to the drawing board -- all 27 EU member states would then have to ratify the agreement again. By that point, at the latest, the euro-skeptic Poles or British would decide that they had new wishes for the treaty, and "the whole thing would be dead," in the words of one Brussels diplomat.

The most probable option that remains is an exhausting marathon. The EU would continue working, at least for a while, with the instruments and powers that it already has. Then, in a couple of years, a new round of negotiations would begin in order to come up with a more efficient set of rules for the club. That would take a long time and by that point the old longing for a smaller, better "core Europe" among committed Europeans would once again have been awakened.

Euro-skeptics, on the other hand, can happily live with the Irish "no" vote. Poland's President Lech Kaczynski was the first to publicly express his satisfaction with the result. "It is no great tragedy," he said.


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