Ireland under pressure to call new vote next year on EU treaty
Irish will be seeking several guarantees in exchange.BRUSSELS - EU leaders are hoping Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen will commit this week to holding a fresh referendum in 2009 on the bloc's Lisbon Treaty, though he will be seeking several guarantees in exchange.
Six months ago Ireland sent shockwaves through Europe when its voters rejected the reform treaty in a referendum.
Cowen will unveil his much-awaited plan to get Europe out of its constitutional limbo at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
Discussions on that route out have been going on for weeks.
"What we are looking for is a commitment by Dublin for a timetable for concluding the process of ratification," said a source close to the EU's French presidency.
That would mean a second referendum, as Ireland is the only EU nation constitutionally bound to ratify the treaty via popular vote.
That's what happened in 2001-2002 when Irish voters rejected, and subsequently backed, the EU's existing Nice Treaty.
France and most of its EU partners would like to see that second vote held late next year.
"Personally I would like to see the treaty wrapped up by late next year. If that's possible I think it would be a good result," France's minister for Europe Jean-Pierre Jouyet said in Brussels on Monday.
The Lisbon treaty, drawn up to replace the failed constitution, would introduce an EU president and new foreign policy supremo and cut the number of national vetoes in EU voting.
Measures in it are designed to streamline the creaking institutions of the EU, which is now operating under rules designed before the "big-bang" of 2004 which brought 10 new members, mainly ex-communist Eastern European nations, into the fold.
The institutional crisis, which recalls the rejection of a full-scale constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005, ruined the original plan to get the treaty up and running by January 1, 2009.
The Irish government must now show leadership but it has been weakened by the financial and economic crises which has hit the "Celtic Tiger" economy hard.
This might affect the government's ability to sell the text to voters and a second Irish "no" would sound the treaty's death knell.
Paradoxically the economic crisis could help show the voters the benefits of being safely under the EU and euro umbrella.
"There is a sense there could be a different mindset because of the change in economic circumstances" Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin opined in Brussels on Monday.
The Irish government has identified what it sees as the main reasons for the treaty being rejected and is seeking new guarantees to ensure it won't happen again.
"The concerns of the Irish people will have to be addressed in a clear and convincing manner by means of legally binding assurances," Martin said.
Thus the Irish government would like formal assurances from its EU partners over its continued military neutrality, fiscal autonomy and the right for the largely-Catholic country to retain its strict abortion laws, even if these matters are not part of the treaty text.
The Irish also want guarantees that Dublin will retain its EU commissioner within the bloc's executive arm.
Currently all member states have one policy commissioner, dealing with anything from health to multilingualism.
However the streamlining Lisbon Treaty, signed by EU leaders in the Portuguese capital a year ago, foresees cuts in the executive after 2014.
EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said Tuesday he backed a move to ensure Ireland, and all member states, would keep their prestigious commissioner post.
"I would support that idea if this is a consideration to have the Lisbon Treaty ratified by all members," said Barroso.
He stressed that the treaty contains a clause allowing the 27 member states, unanimously, to review this reduction.
However that could cause problems with the likes of Belgium and Luxembourg, traditional guardians of EU dogma.
Apart from Ireland, the Czech Republic is the only other EU nation yet to ratify the treaty.
The Czech parliament decided on Tuesday to postpone debate on the text till next February.