Ireland has a diplomatic victory but the real winner is Europe
12.12.08 @ 17:17
The discussion of how to salvage the Lisbon Treaty was by no means the most important item on the agenda at this week's European summit.
The climate change package and how to tackle the financial crisis are, of course, more pressing matters - no one would argue that the EU's institutional framework is more important than the future of the planet and mitigating the effects of the economic downturn.
But the deal struck, which allows the ratification process to resume in Ireland, with a view to ratification by the end of 2009, maintains the package of institutional reforms that will allow the EU to be better able to deal with these long-term political problems.
So, what was agreed and what does it all mean?
First, the Irish government can claim a notable diplomatic victory. The summit agreed that, provided the Lisbon Treaty is successfully ratified, the Commission will again be composed of one member per Member State.
This was a major issue in the Irish referendum, and any attempt to respond to the concerns expressed by the 'No' voters would have to address this issue.
Nonetheless, I am surprised that every other country agreed to give up on this so quickly.
The size of the European Commission
All governments had agreed that the size of the European Commission should be cut down, as successive enlargements of the European Union turned the Commission from a compact executive into a miniature assembly, and several governments were reported as being reluctant to give up on this reform. This is a major coup for the Irish.
More predictably, the Irish have secured a commitment to find legal clarifications and guarantees relating to the specific concerns expressed in the referendum: including, for example, that Ireland's position of military neutrality, their corporation tax rates or existing national law on abortion, education and family values are not affected by the treaty
In return, the Irish government has committed itself to ratifying the treaty by the end of the term of the current Commission, paving the way for a second referendum on the treaty by October 2009.
As far as the composition of the Parliament is concerned, next year's European elections will (if the treaty has not been ratified) elect 736 members. Following ratification, the twelve EU countries due to gain extra seats in the Parliament will obtain them at that point, while Germany will temporarily keep the three extra seats that it would have lost in the event of Lisbon being ratified before the elections.
In the absence of a ratified treaty, the six month rotating presidency of the European Council will continue. The Czech presidency will take place, while the following presidency in the second half of 2009 will be responsible for making the arrangements of the new permanent presidency and the proposed External Action Service and Foreign Affairs Council.
Of course, this summit is not the end of the road for the treaty - the parliamentary ratification in the Czech Republic has been delayed until February next year, while a second Irish referendum campaign will be a challenge for a struggling Fianna Fail government.
More vigorous Yes campaign
Certainly, the "Yes" campaign will have to be far more vigorous and energetic in communicating the benefits of the treaty's reforms and speedily rebutting the myths and distortions that marked the "No" campaign led by Declan Ganley. But it is a continuation of the EU tradition that, when there is a divergence of opinion between countries, negotiation takes place and a compromise is sought.
This tradition began fifteen years ago, when Denmark rejected the Maastricht treaty. The Danes said to the rest of Europe that they didn't want to blow up the whole edifice, but would come back with proposals to find a way out.
Denmark identified four items in the Maastricht package that it didn't like; the other member states were able to meet its concerns and Denmark then approved the treaty by a comfortable majority in a new referendum. Ireland itself went through a similar process with the Treaty of Nice.
Similarly, on this occasion, Ireland would have been perfectly entitled not to re-consider.
In law, that would have been the end of the Lisbon treaty. But such an attitude would have dismayed Ireland's European partners.
In the EU, the give-and-take co-operation of all member countries is fundamental to the continued success of the EU. Had Ireland refused to seek a compromise it would have found itself losing some of goodwill and status it has always enjoyed across Europe.
Several months ago, I said that the issues raised by the "No" campaign needed to be given a respectful answer, that the Irish had to articulate a list of demands and their EU partners needed to listen.
I was not alone in saying this. Indeed, Mr Ganley said that the referendum result was "a mandate to the Irish government to seek a better deal". Any objective analysis of this summit shows that the Irish government has done just that.
Richard Corbett, UK MEP and Socialist Group spokesman on EU Reform