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The Irish Problem

Evan Davis | 15:23 UK time, Monday, 16 June 2008

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Evan, I'm sorry, I thought you were overly aggressive with the Irish minister.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree with Evan. It's the sharks and minnows phenomenon that's bedevilling the Lisbon Treaty/Ireland question and is also daily apparent in Westminster politics. There's rarely any sympathy with the government but always much excitement when it looks like they'll be defeated, regardless of the issue, it seems to me. It's pantomime - the majority gets booed and the minority gets the underdog cheer.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think Evan has inadvertently hit the nail on the head. The politicians may want to centralise Europe, the majority of the people do not - that is why we are quite happy for this small nation to derail the treaty.

    Europe is rarely a key election platform, so citizens are stuck with major changes most do not want.

    How do you resolve this in a democratic society?

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Evan,
    (This is a general comment, not specifically about the Irish/EU issue).
    Delighted to find your new blog. Boy, do I miss Evanomics... but on the other hand you are a spiffy addition to the Today team, so I'm not going to grumble too much about losing the economic advice and comment. Although... it must be very tempting for you to run one final Evannomics which says I TOLD YOU SO in big bold letters!
    Look forward to reading the blog regularly, and hope you enjoy working on Today, and stick with it. It's nice to wake up to someone a little more cheery and a little less, ahh, grumpy...

  • Comment number 5.

    I could never understand the debate about the constitution. Surely the problem with the constitution was not the fact that it was a constitution, but what it said.

    Euroskeptics seemed to reject the idea of a constitution, not the proposed constitution itself. Surely if the EU had a constitution that limited its role and its budget to less than now, and overturned a bunch of old treaties, simplifying the processes etc, the Euroskeptics would love it - it would be a major step forward for their cause.

    I think the major problems with the constitution were that it was too long and too legalistic. It should be no longer than the US constitution, and easy enough to read that it can be taught in primary schools. It must openly admit to changing things, not pretend to just clarify them.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's not about having a 'democratic right' to veto things; it's about having a contractual (treaty) right to do so.
    The EU is based upon a series of multilateral treaties to which all members must be party. That is a decision made by everyone. They can't complain, when a referendum goes against them, that this is 'anti-democratic'. It's just what they all agreed, by treaty, ought to happen.

  • Comment number 7.


    first time blogging on your page on bbc....

    the irish problem is complex and may need time to reflect and maybe some opportunities for it will come down the road.....

  • Comment number 8.

    Why not look at how other groupings of democratic parts work out the same problem? For example the UK - we have a central government that decides - what Westminster votes for is 'inflicted' on the provinces and Nations that make up the United Kingdom.

    Similarly in Germany, France and Spain and in fact in all but the smallest of nations. This arrangement sometimes creates frictions and sometimes these create separatist movements, but in general the parts of a nation cling together as they have more in common than they have differences and essentially that is what the EU is about.

    Europe is very young and the parts of Europe are still learning to 'love' one another, but, if, as is being reported, the Irish are mainly not against Europe they are just against the Lisbon treaty then a gentle reflective passage of time may work - with a strong does of subsidiarity. (Including a joint British and French navy, now, wouldn't that be fun!)

    It will certainly not be helped by the divisive journalistic questioning that has just occurred in Brussels this morning. (José Manuel Barroso's and Brian Cowen's news conference.)

  • Comment number 9.

    Greetings from kleines c. We have been considering your three options for the Irish problem in your blog, Evan. I would go for option c:

    "The easy one is to do nothing and to live with the status quo. Drop Lisbon."

    The Irish problem reminds me of the classic film, 'Casablanca'. At the last moment, Rick makes Ilsa board the plane to Lisbon with her husband, telling her that she would regret it if she stayed.

    "Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."

    To paraphrase the end of Casablanca, Evan, I too think that this is the beginning of a beautiful frienship. Lisbon was always a bit of a stitch-up for the peoples of Europe. If I were Irish, which I am not, I would have voted against the treaty.

    Like Churchill, I still hope to see " ... a Europe where men and women of every country will think of being European as of belonging to their native land, and wherever I go in this wide domain will truly feel 'Here I am at home'."

    Here we now are at home. Perhaps we should simply accept that the flight to Lisbon is not for us, nor for the rest of Europe. In 2008, we may not be flying anywhere.

  • Comment number 10.

    The EU is an evil all consuming Empire it will find a new trick, the vote again is already discredited, that is why they did not try it on over the No votes for the Original version of the Constitutional treaty. They tried lying by changing the name to Lisbon and with a private agreement and intention to deny the publics any say at all via referendums.

    Fortunately the Irish had a way of forcing one against their dictators' will. This has them in the current mess.

    I suspect they will as is their record find a sneakier way to get the measures over us in place by other means. Either in smaller little bits added to other less prominent laws/agreements. Or via spurious democratic passing of the same Constitution by the EU parliament MPs. Thereby lying that, that makes it supported democratically.

    The EU is utterly unprincipled, an Empire of interest of the little political clique.

    Bring back the Common Market!

    Dump all the political, social, legal, military, foreign policy, 'union' garbage.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hello Evan,
    I was most pleased to hear that you were joining the TODAY program as I have always appreciated your take on business and economic matters and your ability to demistify a subject full of jargon and opinions masquerading as facts.
    About a week ago you presented an item on the TODAY program about the effect of speculators on the world prices of oil, grain and other commodities. You inteviewed the chairman of the Chicago Commodities Exchange who denied any possible connection with speculatin by hedge funds attributing the enormous increases to market forces caused by excess growth in thedemand/supply ratio.
    Could I draw your attention to a recent post on the "US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs"website ( This is the testament of Michael W. Masters
    Managing Member / Portfolio Manager
    Masters Capital Management, LLC
    before the Committee on May 20, 2008 ( In this he provides a detailed and illuminating explanation of exactly what has been happening, and propsals for changes in US legislation to prevent hedge funds from affecting world commodity prices so dissastrously.
    I see the price of oil has today fallen to $131/barrel - so maybe the speculators are already sensing the impending bursting of the bubble - let us hope so.

  • Comment number 12.


    Your thought experiment doesn't really add anything to the debate. The fact is the treaty has to be agreed by all member states, that's the legal position we're in. Furthermore, I believe that if this treaty was put to the vote we'd soon find out how isolated the Irish really are in their views. These mumblings and grumblings from the EU establishment, who would dearly love to override their own process to get what they want, just demonstrate, once again, how little control we have over much of what goes on, in Europe.

  • Comment number 13.

    I wanted to respond, Evan, to something JamesStGeorge wrote about the European Union (EU) being an evil, all consuming "Empire". The EU may be "evil" (and good); the EU may "all consuming" (or rather limited in its consumption, depending upon your point of view and reference). These are matters for discussion (and most probably elsewhere). The question which interests me tonight, with respect to the Irish question, is whether the EU is an "empire":

    Well, in a sense, it is. The President (or Emperor) of the European Commission agrees (in the link). Classical Rome had an empire; Europe has had many empires and the turn of the third millennium (AD) is, arguably, dominated by the American Empire:

    With respect to Ireland, I do not think that we can avoid empires, either conceptually or in practice. Ireland was part of the British Empire. It is now part of the European Empire. The point is, JamesStGeorge, it can be a better empire for our being part of it. Let us therefore make it so. ;)

  • Comment number 14.

    Evan, well put:

    "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."

    So why do the political liberal elite still force this on us reluctant proles? without any real democratic reference?

    Despite the Irish vote, in this country our (unelected) PM had the Treaty bill pushed through the (unelected) House of Lords and lobbed at the (unelected!!) Queen for assent with indecent haste. Just so that he could appear at the EU dinner as the hero of the hour. What a man of honesty, courage and vision, presumably no regrets over the referendum Labour promised in their 2005 manifesto, no thought for the opinion polls and sentiment of the UK's people who distrust the EU precisely because of the undemocratic nature of the Brussels elite and our own?

  • Comment number 15.

    By the way Evan,

    Good to see you haven't given up on the blogosphere.

  • Comment number 16.


  • Comment number 17.

    Evan, your scenario of the eu quango attempting to reforming itself and coming up against a veto from, say, The Netherlands, assumes that such a matter would be a legitimate exercise in the first place. Your confusion of “Europe” with the quango eu throws some light on the story of a sad period in our history when the People are on one side (Europe) and the quango eu (and quango BBC) are on the other. The European People have never authorised these people to make decisions, whether reforming or not. It may be a safe haven for failed politicians. It may be a great jolly for journalists. It isn’t real though, is it? If it doesn’t have any mandate it has no foundation. Therefore, how can it possibly exist into the future?

    This quango has already been trying to build its “superstate” by stealth and will continue to try to do so while dropping the Lisbon Treaty. In fact, I am sure many of these people will assume that the bulk of the contents of the Lisbon Treaty will be in place within 6 or 7 years without it ever being ratified.

    The problem for eu quango members is, if the People are not taken along for the ride then, ultimately there is no ride – there is no train. There are just a bunch of sad chancers and their journalist friends, while the rest of us increasingly ignore them. They will continue to use this or that device in an attempt to build the superstate by stealth. However, it will be even easier to use any device or technicality to simply ignore them. No need to dismantle something that will become increasingly irrelevant.

    Just look in what direction politicians will be looking over the next few years – it will not be in the direction of Brussels. Each country’s domestic agenda will always override any external organisation (unless a war is in prospect).

    In any case, if majority voting continues to widen to more areas, this quango would ensure that there would be not vetoes. That, of course, would mark the end of this sad experiment.

  • Comment number 18.

    You are correct that most people's view of the Irish vote is conditioned by their being for or against the Lisbon Treaty. However this is a paradox in itself as it reflects an opinion based on instinct and not an in depth view based on an understanding of it's content as very few will have read the treaty.But then i suppose this is no different to how opinions on other issues are formed.
    You say that if Europe was keen on this treaty Ireland would be ignored.Here i believe it necessary to distinguish between the populace of Europe the majority of whom, if the Dutch and French referendum results are representative,would subscribe to that position and the political elite in Europe driving this project who having invested so much capital are, given their past track records, hardly going to sacrifice a further step on the road to a federal Europe.
    This issue in my opinion is not dead by any means and it is precisely because only Ireland ,one of 27 countries and with a small populace at that ,cannot ratify the treaty that the authors will argue that the process should not be derailed.
    We have by no means heard the last of this and i expect a deal will be concocted to accomodate Irish concerns,another referendum will be put to the Irish people when the dust settles and memories subside and the vote will be in favour ;the Irish electorate feeling they have won by registering their dissent and effecting amendments.Perhaps a somewhat pyrrhic.
    The British government will sit somewhat passively by why this all transpires glad to be out of the firing line and in the good books of the Treaty's authors until the spectre of further 'deepening' of the European Union inevitably arises.

  • Comment number 19.

    Evan, spot on! Thanks for this - I'm glad some are willing to see through the current self-congratulatory, anti-European waffle.. I feel mostly ambivalent about Lisbon, except that the EU decision-making process and the size of the Commission must be reformed - it is far too expensive as is. Otherwise the UK, Germany, and other net contributors will and should pull the financial plug on this circus.

  • Comment number 20.

    Evan - "I think the eurosceptic press would take the view that 495m citizens should not be derailed by a few million Irish voters."

    Surely that attitude can only be taken if the 495m citizens had also had their free and democratic voices heard. Alas, Europe doesn't seem to work that way.

  • Comment number 21.


    You're absolutley right in post 20.

    You can be assured that if the Irish had voted Yes, the Yes camp would have warmly welcomed the democratic vote of the Irish.

    The fact is that EU leaders only support democracy when the vote goes their way. They thought they could get away with the Lisbon treaty by bypassing the views of the 500 million citizens of the EU altogether and we know that is what they would have preferred.

    The EU project has absolutely nothing to do with democracy but in getting "the right result". That makes the Irish vote all the more enjoyable.

  • Comment number 22.

    in my earlier blog; i may have made a statement that was not accurate..

    it is my first time blogging on your blog....

    sorry for any confusion.

  • Comment number 23.

    Just a comment on an earlier post - referencing our 'unelected' Prime Minister. The British do NOT elect Prime Ministers, we elect MPs. The MPs then group in parties, the largest of which elect a leader who then forms a government. It is NOT like the US system and we do not choose our PM, the parliamentarians do.


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