Friday, 3 July 2009

Irish commissioner in Lisbon Treaty slip-up

As EU leaders anxiously await the second Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty this autumn, Irish Commissioner Charlie McCreevy said out loud what most had only admitted in private: the treaty would have been rejected in most countries had they followed Ireland’s example and held a referendum on it.

“When the Irish people rejected the Lisbon treaty a year ago, the initial reactions ranged from one of shock to horror, to aghastness and temper and vexation,” said McCreevy, the EU’s internal market commissioner.

“On the other hand, I think all the politicians of Europe would have known quite well that if a similar question had been put to their electorate in a referendum the answer in 95% of countries would have been ‘no’ as well,” McCreevy told a meeting of accountants in Dublin.

McCreevy’s comments are likely to rattle cages in Ireland and beyond as the Irish prepare to take a second vote on the treaty in the autumn.

The Irish commissioner was strongly criticised by pro-Treaty forces across the EU before last June’s referendum for admitting that he had not read the full text of the Lisbon Treaty and did not expect “any sane, sensible person” to do so in their free time.

His comments were believed to have contributed to the negative result in Ireland and fuelled a blame game among EU leaders following the treaty’s rejection by Irish voters (EurActiv 18/06/08).

At a recent EU summit in Brussels, EU leaders appeared anxious not to repeat past mistakes and promised to communicate better in the run-up to the second Irish vote. “We have to know how to communicate,” said Jan Fischer, Czech prime minister, stressing the need to maintain stable EU institutions amid the ongoing economic turmoil. “We want to have a strong president, we want to have a strong partner who communicates well,” Fischer said as he announced EU leaders’ backing for Commission President José Manuel Barroso to serve a second term.

McCreevy, who before serving as commissioner was Ireland’s finance minister, is widely expected to be replaced as Irish commissioner (see EurActiv LinksDossier on the new European Commission).

A number of converging factors bode well for a ‘yes’ result in October’s referendum. While recent opinion polls show that a clear majority of Irish voters now support the treaty, the government has vowed to run a much more vigorous campaign than last year to rule out the possibility of another rejection, which it says would completely marginalise Ireland in the EU (EurActiv 24/06/09).

POSITIONS:

Predictably, opinions were split between pro and anti-Lisbon forces as to the consequences of McCreevy’s claims.

German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen, chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on constitutional affairs for the 2004-2009 mandate, told EurActiv that McCreevy’s “gaffe” was “appalling and wrong”.

“It’s really incredible that a member of the European Commission, who should be giving voters confidence that we need the treaty, should come again with such a repetition of his previous gaffe,” he said.

“I think McCreevy is frustrated,” argued Leinen. “He knows that he has made big mistakes in his handling of the financial crisis. He refused to do his job at the time and he is under heavy criticism for it, and now he seems to be looking for attention again. Most likely he will not be renewed as Irish commissioner.”

Similarly, Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, another staunch pro-Lisbon advocate and author of ‘The true guide to the Lisbon Treaty’ told EurActiv that the timing of McCreevy’s claims was “most unfortunate”.

“It’s not very prudent for McCreevy to speculate as to the democratic processes in other member states and the success other ‘yes’ campaign may have had,” argued Duff, “particularly given the poor campaign from the ‘yes’ side in Ireland last year”.

On the other hand, Lorraine Mullally, director of the Eurosceptic Open Europe think-tank in the UK, argued that the Irish commissioner’s “honesty” had “touched a nerve” and that his statement “probably reflects what most other EU leaders think themselves”.

Open Europe last Friday published the results of a poll indicating that 77% of German voters want a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Mullally conceded that while McCreevy’s 95% claim “might be a slight exaggeration, it’s fair to say that many other EU countries would have voted ‘no’ to Lisbon had they been given the opportunity”.

The Open Europe director believes McCreevy’s claim may well do damage to the Irish ‘yes’ campaign, noting that “he has got a history of coming out and saying honest things which arguably score an own goal for the EU cause”.

Duff, however, does not believe any impact will be felt in Ireland. “This was unfortunate, but not catastrophic,” he said, given that “McCreevy is no longer in the Irish government”.

Mullally said ”this poll clearly shows that it is not only the Irish who want to be consulted on the Lisbon Treaty. This treaty transfers significant powers from the national to the EU level, and German voters want to be given a say”.

“Politicians claim they want to see more debate about the EU at national level, and yet they have conspired to deny voters a say on the Lisbon Treaty. Research shows that referendums on European issues significantly improve the public’s interest in and knowledge of the EU – so referendums should be encouraged, not avoided at all costs.”

She concluded that “if politicians want people to connect with the EU, they should give them a say on the big issues like treaty change. The public are crying out to be consulted – it is time to stop pretending that politicians know best, and inject some democracy into EU politics”.

This article first appeared on EurActiv