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Lisbon food fight

Mark Mardell | 09:11 UK time, Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Eddie Downey from the Irish Farmers' Association leads his cattle across a field that is a pleasant shade of green, if not quite the required emerald, in County Meath. We'll see tomorrow if the farmers follow their own organisation with quite such obedience.
The complaint I have heard most frequently in this campaign is that people can't make head or tail of what they are voting on.

Farmer Eddie Downey with cowsThe farmers' fears and the debate it has prompted illustrate magnificently the central problem of this referendum - not the patronising view that the issues are too complex for the ordinary voter to follow, but that the complexities are too much for just about anyone to follow. Watch as just one strand of the Lisbon debate descents into baffling wonkery.

Irish farmers were among the staunchest No voters. They are worried that if there is a change in the world trade rules they will be undercut by cheap beef from Argentina. But they swiftly moved into the Yes camp after some hard bargaining with Prime Minister Brian Cowen.

Eddie told me: "We have a written assurance from our PM that he will veto this World Trade Organization deal if it goes through in its current form. He said it was unacceptable. Because of that, we are now on board on the Lisbon deal."

"It's changed everything ?" I ask.

"It's changed everything absolutely. Without that written assurance we would be in the No camp."

Of course the big argument here is the old one between free trade and protectionism. But it also throws up the political questions. Does the Irish government really mean it? Does this have anything to do with the Lisbon Treaty? And does the government have a veto anyway?

The first is relatively simple. If by some miracle Mr Mandelson were able to negotiate a successful deal in the dying days of the Doha round he might not take too kindly to such a triumph being vetoed. In fact, I can safely predict the explosion would need a new metaphor suggesting more heat and power than merely thermonuclear. Not just I, but commission sources, think the Irish government must be banking that no deal will be done. Otherwise they really would be portrayed as the bad boys - not just of Europe, but the whole world.

Many would argue that the farmers', er, "beef" is nothing to do with the Lisbon reform treaty and that their objection is about the general pro-free trade thrust of the current European Commission.

Declan GanleyBut when I put that to the man behind the No campaign, Declan Ganley, he disagrees.

"Not true, it is linked to the Lisbon Treaty. We have the prime minister here talking about the veto and there is no veto. The fact is that all international trade agreements are moved to qualified majority voting. And the remaining technical areas where we could raise objections are massively eliminated and reduced to ridiculous areas, like the field of audiovisual services."

But the commission tells me nothing in the Lisbon Treaty changes the status of trade talks and technically the Irish government does have a veto. They say that the apparently "ridiculous" areas left are what allow the Irish to stop an agreement. This on the principle of "nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed" - known more elegantly in Brussels as "the pastis principle". A drop of the French aniseed drink into water turns the whole thing cloudy. Similarly, the commission argues that although there is no veto over agricultural deals, there is in certain special areas and that turns the whole thing into an area where there is a veto.

Neil O Brien from the British anti-Lisbon group Open Europe tells me that the only trade areas where countries will have a veto in future are cultural and audiovisual services, where there's a risk to cultural and linguistic diversity, and social, educational and health services, where the national organisations of these services are at risk.

He says: "In my view this is not even an emergency brake. Unless you can prove to the European Court of Justice that a trade deal which includes a health or education services element would 'seriously disturb the national organisation' of those services then the default position is a decision by qualified majority voting. In other words, if you wanted to stop a QMV decision then you would have to take a massive and potentially humiliating gamble on an appeal to the court."

By now we are far from the fields of Meath and knee-deep in lawyer land. I've made them as comprehensible as I can, but the arguments are so fine, so detailed, that even most of those with a keen interest in politics won't have the time to follow them.

Heady stuff, this pastis principle. Perhaps there should be a referendum on the world trade talks. They might even be easier to understand.

Thanks to those who pointed out yesterday that the three politicians represented 80%, not 8%, of the voters: a slip of the typing finger I didn't spot. And thanks also to wickedmessenger for pointing out what I actually wrote, rather than what Jose thought I wrote: it would be the designers of the treaty who would be sad, not me.

Several ask why I think the Irish would not be asked to vote again. Largely because I am hearing "you can re-heat something once, not twice", which I will henceforth call the "Salmonella Principle". But I agree if there is a No vote there will be many different proposals - and some will say they should vote again.

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