Will Sarkozy persuade the Irish to vote again?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a fast trip to Ireland on July 21. He faced a cold reception. Ironically, he angered the Irish supporters of the Lisbon treaty on reform, which the Irish rejected at a June 12 referendum.

Sarkozy arrived in Dublin as the current EU chairman to promote the EU reform treaty again. Officially, his aim was to try and understand why the Irish voted against the treaty and what could be done for Europe to remain united, but his real goal was to push through a second referendum. Having talked to Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and 15 leaders of political parties and associations (both pro and con) for four hours, he does not seem to have achieved his goal so far.

The inevitable arrival of the French president started causing discomfort in Dublin several weeks before. The Irish were mortified by French promptings of how to vote on the eve of June 12 when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned the Celts that it would be "very, very awkward if we couldn't count on the Irish, who themselves have counted a great deal on Europe's money."

The Irish prime minister's entourage believes with good reason that this warning added a couple of percent to the anti-Lisbon group. Cowen felt the weight of the issue when Sarkozy said last week that Ireland would have to vote again. He had been racking his brains over ways of reselling the concepts of Lisbon and EU democracy to his compatriots and did not expect this edict. Worse, the statement was made not even by a native Gall. Galls are relatives of Celts, albeit remote.

As one prominent Irish politician put it, after the referendum Sarkozy managed to set thousands of people against the Lisbon treaty because he thinks of himself as a superman.

The Irish premier, in an opinion piece in the Irish Times to mark the visit, gave a message to Sarkozy to back off and not push too hard for Ireland to take its next step. "We need patience and understanding from our partners over the coming months as we complete that process," Cowen wrote. Cowen is reported to have told the French president in private that his actions are swelling the ranks of those against the treaty each time he intervenes. The Irish Times wrote that "His only problem now is to make Sarkozy aware of this and keep him quiet until next year."

The Lisbon treaty has been ratified by 23 out of the EU's 27 countries. It comes down to a large-scale reform of governing agencies. Most important, the treaty will introduce the EU's permanent president and a new system of voting based on the qualified or "dual majority." In other words, the obstinate East European countries will lose the right to veto any decisions. This system of voting is effective 2014. A decision will be considered adopted if it is supported by 55% of EU states with at least 65% of the population. The Irish are worried that the Lisbon treaty may deprive them of their military neutrality and independent foreign policy.

Sarkozy wants the referendum to be repeated this fall, but the Irish prime minister fears that it will be worse than this summer's fiasco. It is clear why Sarkozy insists on the fall. He will be the EU chairman until the end of the year and would be pleased to report at the EU summit next October how cleverly he tamed the Irish.

However, the final decision on a second referendum will be made by Cowen rather than Sarkozy. He will act only if he believes in such a plebiscite. At this point, it is clear he will not be able to win next fall.

In 2001 the Irish were persuaded to vote again, and they again said "no" to the Niece treaty, but then Dublin had a strong argument in favor of the second voting. In 2000, the first referendum was attended by a mere 34% of voters. It was presented as undemocratic, and the Irish were subjected to a stronger promotional campaign. But still, 16 months passed between the two referendums.

Most likely, Cowen will agree to the referendum in the fall of the next year. The potential upsurge of the high-tech Irish economy will make it easier to persuade the Celts to make a historic decision. They are stubborn and unruly but may have a greater bark than a bite. Moreover, this will not slow EU progress much. Brussels will still establish the new European Commission and elect its new president by the end of the next year.

There is another possibility. If Cowen decides that he is unable to deliver a "yes" vote in the fall of 2009, he will be forced to give up the idea of voting altogether. This will infuriate France and Germany and put into motion two mechanisms, something which the EU has tried to avoid. They are "multispeed Europe" and "enhanced cooperation." The first one means that the more pro-Lisbon countries will continue building the Union without those who are lagging behind or disagree. The second will allow other members to promote cooperation in specific fields (taxation and law, for instance). It is hoped that the foot draggers will see how wonderful Europe lives without them, come to their senses and try to return.

If the second referendum in Ireland is rushed, the Irish may say "no" again, in which case Brussels will be in for an unprecedented crisis.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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