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Ring out the old

Mark Mardell | 06:00 UK time, Wednesday, 31 December 2008

For the European project's enthusiasts 2008 has been a good year.

The European Union has extended its reach in foreign affairs. It brokered a ceasefire during the Georgian crisis and held a common position despite deep and obvious divisions between the 27 towards Russia.Eulex police starting Kosovo mission, 27 Nov 08

The mission to Kosovo eventually got off the ground.

There's even an EU battle fleet on its way to African waters to deal with the pirates.

Despite the financial crisis the euro has weathered the storm better than the pound.
After a few false starts and the occasionally conspicuous absence of Germany there is agreement on a coordinated plan to stimulate the economy.

Countries are still queuing up to join the organisation. Iceland became a surprise new contender for membership. The most important country in the Balkans, Serbia, chose the EU and the West in elections that were widely seen as a referendum on its future orientation.

Just before Christmas national leaders and the European Parliament backed what has become a flagship plan, to cut greenhouse gases. True, it was much watered down in the teeth of the recession, but it still puts the EU well ahead of the rest of the international pack.

And yet, and yet.

The past year was perhaps even better for those who despise, distrust or just aren't totally convinced about the European project. No need here for a long list. One date.Irish newspaper front pages after referendum, 14 Jun 08

On 13 June the Irish people rejected the Lisbon Treaty. This was unlucky for some. At that time the Irish government was rather popular and the vote clearly wasn't on domestic issues. So it was clearly a rejection of the treaty itself, or the EU as a whole. But the Irish government claims the rejection was the result of specific fears about the practical effect of the treaty.

The EU's national and commission leaders managed not to have their greater project, of trying to do things that are relevant to people all over Europe, derailed by this blow. They put it on the back burner, knowing it would cook away on its own.

By December the leaders of EU countries and the commission had decided that Ireland should vote again. Actually most of them will have decided that, in the privacy of their own heads, within hours of the result. I was, at the time, far too hasty in declaring Lisbon dead. It's not that I am insufficiently cynical. I just didn't think a second referendum would be winnable, and therefore didn't see it as a viable political option. It still seems to me a huge gamble.

Lisbon was of course the treaty that rose from the ashes of the European Constitution which had been burnt to death by the Dutch and French people. To many the two documents looked suspiciously alike.

I am not quite sure who first used the phrase "They don't know the meaning of the word 'No'" in relation to the EU's plans for treaty reform, but it was a stroke of brilliance. It sticks in people's minds and strikes a chord. In political speak, it resonates. It was quite clear before and after the constitution that most national leaders feared referendums because they thought they would lose them.

The behaviour over the treaties gives the impression the European project is an unstoppable juggernaut. A few bodies in the way might slow it down, but not significantly alter its path, let alone stop it in its tracks.

Few of us will really think the Lisbon Treaty is the biggest issue of 2009, but the second Irish referendum, planned for the autumn, will be an important moment for the EU. If the Irish people back it, it will be the end of the story of institutional change for a while, but it will have done nothing to endear the EU to the people who live within its borders. A second rejection would mean hard choices for those in power. What would they do? Abandon the thing they say is so necessary? Introduce it by the back door or in some way, impossible to imagine at the moment, move on without Ireland? Who will find 2009 a good year in the EU?


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