04 December 2008

Cowen tours Europe in Search for a Solution to the Lisbon Treaty Deadlock

The Taoiseach has stated that he hopes "to find an acceptable way to break the deadlock over the Lisbon Treaty with his EU partners" ahead of a summit next week.

Brian Cowen (left) is mulling whether or not to call a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after its rejection by the Irish voters in June of this year.

"Working closely with my colleagues within the European Council, I'm hopeful that we can identify the elements of an acceptable way forward next week," Cowen said, referring to the EU summit in Brussels next Thursday and Friday.

Speaking in Berlin, he also said that "any resolution to the impasse must address not only the concerns of the Irish public about the charter".
"I'm very conscious that it must also be acceptable to colleague member states who have made clear their desire to see the reforms contained in the Lisbon Treaty enter into force as soon as possible," Cowen declared during a joint press briefing with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany was the second stop on Cowen's mini-tour of European capitals to discuss the treaty. He will head to London today to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and to Paris tomorrow for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy, as France currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Cowen's first destination yesterday was Luxembourg, where he met Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker (right), who - despite the small size of his country - is a very influential European politician and often seen as the éminence grise of the EU. The meeting took place behind closed doors, in an atmosphere of great secrecy, and no details about it have emerged.

Cowen is thought to be considering whether Irish voters would back the Lisbon Treaty in a new referendum, if guarantees were given on key concerns including abortion, corporate tax and the Republic of Ireland's cherished military neutrality.
Government researchers found that those issues, as well as opposition to losing the permanent Irish EU Commissioner in Brussels, were the main reasons for the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by 53% of Ireland's voters on June 12th.

"The Taoiseach's discussions with his EU counterparts will focus on the situation in relation to the Lisbon Treaty ahead of next week's European Council," Cowen's office said today.
"Other EU issues, notably the climate change and energy package, and the international financial crisis, are also likely to feature."

In 2001 Irish voters rejected the EU's Nice Treaty, but the result was overturned the following year in a second referendum, when clarifying declarations were given by other member states. So Cowen hopes he can orchestrate another U-turn, if he brings the right kind of compromises home from Europe.

Though this calculation has a certain logic, there is a significant difference between then and now. In 2001 Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (left) enjoyed strong support from the Irish electorate, and the first Nice referendum was defeated narrowly, with a very low turnout of voters.

The Lisbon Treaty was rejected by a clear majority, and the turnout of voters was high. And - in contrast to 2001 - the popularity of the government, its main party Fianna Fáil and the Taoiseach himself are now at an all-time low.
So it is more than likely that the Irish electorate would reject the Lisbon Treaty again, should they be forced to vote in a second referendum, by a government that is now loathed throughout the country.

While Brian Cowen flew off to discuss the treaty with his EU counterparts, the opposition leader has pressed for private briefings from the Taoiseach.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny (right), whose party supported the treaty even stronger than Fianna Fáil, said that the issue was "a matter of national importance", and that Ireland was now "becoming the butt of some anti-European pressure".

"We need to know what it is that the government proposes to do when the Taoiseach goes out to Brussels next week, to explain to the other heads of government the strategy for Ireland," Enda Kenny demanded.

I am sure that he will be informed about those plans in time, but I doubt that it will help him and his party to be a more effective opposition against an ever more incompetent government.

The cross-party pact in support of the Lisbon Treaty has damaged the standing of both opposition parties that took part in it - Fine Gael and Labour - with a significant section of the Irish electorate.
In order to unseat and replace the current government, the opposition needs to be seen distant from Fianna Fáil and Brian Cowen, and not - once again - as his partners.

The Labour Party seems to have grasped that nettle. At their national conference in Kilkenny last weekend delegates still said that the Lisbon Treaty had "positive elements for the future of Europe", but they also stated clearly that "the decision of the Irish voters should be respected".

This is the right approach. The people have voted - fair and square - and made a decision. If every time a referendum brings a result the government does not like a second round of voting is forced on the nation, it is a clear affront to Democracy and to the people, who after all had a choice and made their decision.

In the current situation of crisis and great instability every Irish politician - regardless of party - should be aware of the public mood and show the electorate more respect. After all, it is the people who elect the TDs. And if they wish to remain TDs, they need to listen carefully to their voters and follow their will.

The Emerald Islander

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