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Lisbon: A Pandora's box

Mark Mardell | 10:50 UK time, Friday, 19 June 2009

The latest anguished wrangling - it would be wrong to call it a row - over the Lisbon Treaty sounds obscure and legalistic, about the strength of a protocol versus a legally binding international agreement. Dull, huh? But at heart it is about the raw stuff of politics: fear and failure.

The Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, is frightened he will fail by losing a second referendum. So he wants strong guarantees about what Lisbon does and does not mean to reassure Irish voters.

The other leaders are viscerally fearful about anything, anything at all, that will give people the slightest excuse to reopen the debate on Lisbon. Their fear of failure is heartfelt. They believe a new treaty is needed to run the European Union and they are fed up with the immense difficulty in getting it past the people.

Remember, first there was the European Constitution. That was killed off by voters in France and the Netherlands. Painfully, slowly, a new treaty, Lisbon, emerged: the Constitution stripped of some of its pretensions and fine words, but with most of the rule changes intact. Then the Irish people voted that down.

In their wisdom the Irish government decided this was down to various (in their view false) fears about what Lisbon would mean, for Irish neutrality, for abortion law, for workers rights. So they want guarantees setting out that Lisbon doesn't mean any of that.

Most observers think they will win the second referendum, more because of the economic crisis than these guarantees. Perhaps. I would just observe that the Irish government are very, very fixed on this one solution, and are meticulously hammering gold-plated, reinforced, tungsten-tipped nails into one particular stable door which they have identified as the exit route of that fine filly "Lisbon Treaty". If another stable door, perhaps marked "I don't like the EU's current direction" was the real route of "Lisbon Treaty's" disappearance they could be in very great trouble.

What the other leaders are worried about is that this whole kerfuffle will open the door for others to demand this, that and the other.

You see a protocol, making an agreement part of an EU treaty, is stronger than a mere agreement in international law, which is what today's form of words would amount to on their own.

The Irish prime minister put the cat among the pigeons by demanding this in a letter to the others, without apparently squaring them or doing any advanced diplomatic work. He wrote to "provide maximum possible legal reassurance to the Irish people... I need to be able to come out of our meeting and state, without fear of contradiction, that the legal guarantee... will, in time, acquire full treaty status by way of a protocol." This would have to be attached to a new treaty and new treaties need ratification, by parliament or a referendum.

So what gives pro-Lisbon leaders the heebie-jeebies is that there will be a campaign in Britain for a referendum on this, or someone will pop up and ask for their own reassurances, or the Czech or Polish president will find a new reason for not signing off Lisbon, or there'll be some other democratic diversions.

It slightly puzzles me why Gordon Brown is worried about this. The new bit would be tagged onto the next treaty allowing a new country to join the EU. That would probably be Croatia or Iceland. Perhaps Mr Brown is optimistic enough to believe that he will be prime minister when this happens. But it is more likely it will land on the plate of a Conservative government.

Those in Mr Cameron's party who hate Lisbon may see this as an ideal opportunity to deliver a retrospective blow to the hated treaty by demanding a referendum and voting down the assurances. It would be poetic, rather than practical, but symbols are important in politics.

But then the guts of this new treaty would be about a new country joining the EU. It has always been Conservative policy to encourage the expansion of the EU: could Mr Cameron happily encourage people to deal a blow to this longstanding approach?

But there's another consideration. Mr Cameron wants to wring new opt-outs, even a new relationship from the EU. The word is that the fruits of any such negotiation would be made law by attaching yet another protocol to this new treaty. So could the Conservatives end up holding a referendum on the EU and urging people to vote "Yes"?

Or would Mr Cameron be just as keen as current leaders to tiptoe around the whole awkward subject?

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