The Irish Problem
I enjoyed speaking to the Irish minister for European affairs, Dick Roche, this morning. He was sharing a microphone with our excellent Europe editor Mark Mardell in Luxembourg where EU foreign ministers are meeting.
First, Mark went through some of the options facing the EU:
a) The classic option is to ask Ireland to vote again, after some token amendment has been made to the treaty (but not enough of an amendment to undermine the ratification already achieved in any other country).
b) The brutal one is to proceed with ratification and ignore the Irish, who can choose to catch up later or leave altogether.
c) The easy one is to do nothing and to live with the status quo. Drop Lisbon.
Paraphrasing from my understanding of Mark's views published elsewhere, he appears to think the status quo option is more possible than the EU has hitherto wanted to admit.
After all, he points out, the EU has achieved quite a lot in recent years, proving that you don't have to change the constitution to get it to work.
It is however Mr Roche's views we were most interested in. Alas, I'm not sure we got any views. He was understandably reluctant to rule out or rule in anything.
In doing so, he leaves the door open for a second referendum - which might horrify some of his compatriots - but at least he doesn't seem very keen on the idea.
Unfortunately, there was no other idea on which he sounded keen either.
For him, it must be an altogether embarrassing meeting. What do you say to your colleagues on such an occasion?
Anyway, reflecting on the interview with Dick Roche, a wholly different thought occurred to me.
Ireland has gone down in the British press as a heroic nation (David battling the EU Goliath). But I want you to do a thought experiment.
Imagine for a moment that we separated our views of how we should treat the Irish from our particular view of the Lisbon treaty.
How would we expect Ireland to be treated if, for example, all the countries of the EU had finally agreed a new treaty that restored some national powers lost to the EU, curbed the Commission and reformed the CAP? And that only Ireland opposed it after a referendum.
Do you think the British would be saying we should give in on this, and just allow Europe to go unreformed?
I rather doubt it.
I think the eurosceptic press would take the view that 495m citizens should not be derailed by a few million Irish voters.
My only point is that most people's views of the Irish vote and the proper EU response to it are entirely governed by their view of the Lisbon treaty itself, not by their adherence to any high principle that small countries have a democratic right to veto things.
And my guess is that if Europe was really keen on this treaty, it could and would ignore Ireland. At an extreme push, if the 26 countries wanted to they could collectively overcome the Irish veto by each leaving the EU (a right that I think that we all have) and then joining a new EU that was modelled on the lines of the Lisbon treaty.
The problem for Europe is not the Irish vote on its own.
It is that the rest of Europe is not keen enough on this treaty to overcome the relatively small impediment represented by the vote. And many parts of Europe - probably including the UK - are on the side of the Irish anyway.
With such half-hearted support, the treaty is not likely to get very far.
Which means that you should avoid giving Ireland all the credit or all the blame if the treaty dies.