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Sarkozy stumbles as the EU tries to find a way forward after Ireland

By Adam Hug. Source: Public Servant

The EU has spent the last month navel-gazing; trying to figure out a way out of the bind it has found itself in after the Irish no vote on the Lisbon 'Reform' Treaty, and pondering how to re-engage its citizenry.

Since Laken in 2001, the EU has been trying to balance the perceived need for institutional reform that streamlines operations, enabling it to cope with further enlargement and future challenges, with a growing scepticism towards the reform process amongst the EU public for many different, and often conflicting, reasons. The Irish no vote, following on from the collapse of the Constitution in 2005 in France and the Netherlands, shows that even the most overtly pro-European publics are deeply disengaged by perpetual institutional reform.

A sign of the growing disillusionment across the EU, the Commission's June Eurobarometer survey shows a decline in public support for the EU amongst the 27 member states. Only 52% of Europeans believe their country's membership of the EU is a good thing. This is down 6% from last autumn and over 75% from a generation ago. However a small majority, 32% to 30%, of Britons now believe membership to be bad for the UK.

In Ireland the treaty was pulled apart by a ragtag coalition of the far left and right, Sinn Fein and Libertas. Particularly galling for politicians both in Ireland and across the EU was the lack of a clear issue around which the no voters clearly coalesced, a single problem which they could try to solve. However, this confusion has not prevented recriminations.

If Europe was able to choose a leader to mop the EU's troubled brow in the wake of the Irish vote, it is unlikely that it would have chosen the less than emollient figure of President Sarkozy for the task. However, thanks to a system Lisbon sought to change, it is the French President, as holder of the rotating Presidency, who has the unenviable task of trying to find a way forward. His start has not been encouraging.

Sarkozy has responded in two main ways. First, he seized on complaints from Irish farmers over Peter Mandelson's approach to WTO negotiations on agriculture and CAP reform, and attempted to place it within a wider argument for protectionism in the face of rising food prices and global economic malaise. Although clearly influenced by his domestic concerns, this poses a real challenge for those, such as the British Government, who have supported the liberalising agenda Brussels has pursued since another controversial product of the Portuguese capital, the 2000 Lisbon Agenda.

Although Mandelson has been fighting back hard, if Sarkozy is successful in gaining support for a return to protectionism, there may be ramifications for the liberalisation of public services in areas such as the implementation of the 2006 'Bolkestein' Directive on services in the internal market that is due to come into force by December 2009, or the opening up of postal markets. While protectionism, particularly in farming, may play well in France, it is likely to fuel further scepticism toward the EU in Britain where reform of the CAP is so critical to restoring British faith in the project.

Although formal discussions on the Treaty are in purdah until the October 15th summit, it is clear the second strand of the Sarkozy strategy is to push the Irish government into re-voting. He has publically stated that 'if the prospect of a second vote in Ireland has been raised, it is because it has happened before. We need some kind of vote to get out of the situation in Parliament or in a referendum.' Furthermore, he has threatened that further enlargement could not happen without the Treaty.

While this may not be the case in every member state, for a sceptical British public, and in many of the smaller and newer member states, it is difficult to see that the institutional benefits delivered by the Treaty would outweigh the anger and disillusionment generated by an Irish re-vote delivered at the diplomatic equivalent of a gun point.

Giving the Irish government time and space to see if they can resolve enough of the Irish public's concerns, for example by retaining the current size of the Commission, to Eurosceptic chagrin in the UK, and clarifying the tax, neutrality and abortion issues, might enable ratification. However while Ireland may be the only country to have voted the treaty down, it is far from the only public to hold deep reservations about the both the Treaty and the way the EU operates, as the opinion polls starkly show.

French sabre-rattling, deeply hypocritical given their failure to hold a second referendum on the Constitution, is likely to be nothing but counter-productive as recent spats with the Czech and Polish Presidents show. It does nothing to dispel the core concern, that is, the perception of the EU as an elite project which is out of touch with the public.

The drafters of the Lisbon Treaty argued that it would give a greater democratic accountability by strengthening the elected pillars of the EU, the Council and Parliament. However, if the Irish are unable to resolve their disagreements, the EU must be prepared to move on without Lisbon.