22 July 2008

The Biffo & Sarko Show in Dublin

Originally scheduled already for July 11th, a brief official visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) to Dublin took place yesterday. In contrast to a state visit, where Sarkozy would come as the French head of state and then be primarily the guest of our President Mary McAleese, this was a short working visit, a political fact-finding mission of the current EU President in the aftermath of Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
So the host was Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who welcomed Nicolas Sarkozy at Government Buildings in Dublin for a conference with selected ministers of his own cabinet. Later Nicolas Sarkozy also met the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael and Eamon Gilmore of the Labour Party. Despite the fact that both politicians and their parties supported the Lisbon Treaty, they had over the weekend contemplated to snub the French leader, as it was originally planned to give them only a few minutes each with Nicolas Sarkozy.
After a re-arrangement of the time table both were then quite happy to attend the scheduled meeting at Government Buildings.

Even before Sarkozy's arrival in our capital, the visit was overshadowed by various remarks the French President was supposed to have made - though not officially in public - in recent days in Paris. He was alleged to have said that Ireland would have to vote again, which caused a stir and some resentment within the Irish population and especially in the victorious Irish NO camp.

On the other hand, there was an unexpected step forward by Nicolas Sarkozy, who expressed a specific wish to meet not only the leaders of Ireland's largest political parties, who had all been calling for a YES vote in the defeated referendum, but also selected representatives of the Irish NO campaign. As the most significant exponents of the various groups that opposed the Lisbon Treaty, Declan Ganley of the think tank Libertas, former Green Party MEP Patricia McKenna of the People's Alliance, and Richard Boyd Barrett of the People before Profit movement had the opportunity to put their views directly to Nicolas Sarkozy.

It was quite significant that this meeting took place in the French embassy, and thus under strict diplomatic terms on French territory, where Nicolas Sarkozy and not Brian Cowen was the host. Whatever one might think about the French, they are still the masters of diplomacy, whose rules and regulations they developed and shaped way back in the 18th and 19th century.
Besides the three main leaders of the NO campaign, a number of other representatives from the NO camp were present as well. And I have to say that I was rather impressed by the energetic, open and friendly attitude of Nicolas Sarkozy. This was not the French bogeyman, whose mind was set on forcing the Irish into another unpopular vote. Sarkozy came across as a statesman who was willing to listen and learn why Ireland had rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

Even though he did not change his mind visibly and openly there and then in Dublin, there were moments when one could see clearly that he was thinking while listening to the arguments.
It is unlikely that in the remaining five months of the French EU presidency a solution can be found, and even more unlikely that there will be another referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty. Certainly not before the next elections to the European Parliament, due in a year's time.

In my opinion the most likely offer that might come from Nicolas Sarkozy and the EU is a change to the idea of reducing the size of the EU Commission, which would leave one commissioner from each member state in place as it is now. If this is indeed offered, the whole of Europe will have to thank the Irish voters for preserving everyone's permanent representation in the highest and most powerful organ of the EU structure.
There might also be a new and more acceptable formula for the voting system in the EU Council.

After all the official talks were over, the joint news conference of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Taoiseach Brian Cowen at Government Buildings turned into a deliberately happy demonstration of Franco-Irish friendship and unity. The event was the first episode of a tightly stage-managed "Biffo & Sarko Show", with some elements of the well-remembered "two Ronnies" coming to mind. I am sure there will be more of the same in the future, as both politicians have no choice but to respect each other - as well as the will of the voters - and work together if they want to bring the current stalemate in the EU to an end without offending the people of Ireland and Europe any further.
Sarkozy said that there was "no magic wand available to resolve the Lisbon impasse". He also denied saying that Ireland should hold a second referendum on the treaty. This was important to clarify, and it seems that the French President has now formally and officially accepted what the leaders of the NO campaign told him: After Ireland's NO vote the Lisbon Treaty is dead.

This is also in line with a statement by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who said that "there can be no re-run of the Lisbon Treaty Referendum" and a new deal must be negotiated. Sinn Féin was the only party represented in Dáil Éireann to support the NO campaign, a fact that will not be forgotten by Ireland's voters in coming elections.

Despite being a very short visit that lasted only a few hours, the element of security was very high. Both Irish Gardai and a significant contingent of French security personnel were deployed in quite unusual strength for what was after all only a brief working visit in the capital of a friendly country. It was obvious that the Irish government was not taking any risks, and that French officials had probably overestimated the anger of the Irish people.
There were several demonstrations in Dublin yesterday, both in favour of Nicolas Sarkozy and against him and the EU.

The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), which had earlier this year filled the streets of Dublin with more than ten thousand angry demonstrators against the WTO talks and decided to support the Lisbon Treaty after all very late in the campaign, was all pro-EU again. As a clear sign of their support for Nicolas Sarkozy they brought a number of tractors - painted in the blue, white and red colours of the French flag - into Dublin's inner city. (No great surprise here, as no-one received and still receives more money and support from the EU than Irish farmers...)

On the other hand, more than 200 fishermen, many of them from Ireland's southern coastlands, were protesting against the ever more restrictive EU regulations for their industry. Highlighting their plight in a peaceful way, they handed out free fish to passers-by on O'Connell Bridge, right in the very centre of Dublin.

A third, and by far the largest demonstration was organised by the Campaign against the EU Constitution (CATEC) on Dublin's Kildare Street, right outside of the Government Buildings.
CATEC, which was very active in the NO campaign, is made up of 15 different groups and organisations, including the Socialist Party and the Peace and Neutrality Alliance. In a news conference their leaders made the clear statement that after rejections by the voters of France, the Netherlands and Ireland the treaty is dead. They said CATEC would "not accept any deals or buy-offs to revive it".

The CATEC demonstration was joined by people from all parts of Ireland who travelled for the day to Dublin to make their point heard and seen by Nicolas Sarkozy and our own politicians. One of the more angry protesters shortened his lunch by throwing two eggs in the direction of Nicolas Sarkozy. Even though he missed the French President, he was immediately lead away by Gardai. But this was the only real "incident" in an otherwise peaceful and well-organised demonstration.

An old friend of mine, Kermit (the frog), who wrote for many years a regular column in Centre Focus, a magazine published by the Council of Trade Unions in Cork, decided to make his point even more visible than most. Dressed appropriately he joined the demonstration and told Nicolas Sarkozy in his usual and poignant way where to go. Despite the well-known French practice of eating frogs' legs, no harm was done to him and while Nicolas Sarkozy returned with deep thoughts to Paris, Kermit is now happily back at the Lough in Cork, where he lives.

And after a long and eventful day (at whose end I was frankly too tired to write this entry right away) I am home again, too. Waterford, for long spells of this 'summer' covered with grey clouds and rather cool, wet and windy, welcomed me with bright and unexpected sunshine. Maybe this is a little omen, a sign that after all the darkness that the Lisbon Treaty was threatening us with, there is new hope on the horizon. For that one has to thank the Irish people, and this we cannot do often enough. However, the struggle for the retention of proper democracy in the EU is far from over. The referendum of June 12th was only the first of many battles. The victory we achieved was great and welcome, but it should not make us complacent. It should wake us up and make us ready for more. Only with good preparation and by keeping up the right spirit will we succeed and keep Europe the homeland of Democracy, the great gift ancient Athens gave to the world.

The Emerald Islander

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Charmant? YES! But still - vote YES or NO at www.FreeEurope.info - YOUR voice.

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