I am looking forward to voting Yes in next year’s referendum. Two days after the No vote, Lisbon Mark Two is already a live runner. The despair in Government circles and the anger at the result in Europe is being replaced by realpolitik. Even on Friday as he conceded defeat, Taoiseach Brian Cowen refused to rule out a second referendum, Cowenspeak for “It’s the first option”. Yesterday Le Figaro, the Sarkozy-leaning French daily, suggested that amendments or protocols would do the trick.
And they probably will.
Of course, we cannot put an identical Lisbon Treaty back to a popular vote. Integration Minister Conor Lenihan, one of the more realistic Government members, was quick to make that clear yesterday morning. But Lisbon Mark Two is already on the agenda. When the shellshocked Lisbon losers sit back and think clearly, they will realise that Brian Cowen heads to Brussels this week strengthened rather than weakened. He has a mandate to negotiate a better deal, not to apologise.
Personally embarrassed in front of all those stuffy European heads of state, he gives the impression of carrying the cross of a country that is critical of Europe. He should not fret. Ireland is seen as awkward, demanding, critical, independent and unashamedly self-centred. On Thursday, we nakedly voted for the interests of Ireland, not for the hidden agenda of European governments. Not a bad place to be. The result can only be a better deal for Ireland. We will have earned respect, as well as irritation. The Taoiseach can turn it to his advantage.
This week will be too early for Cowen to present a shopping list; partly because he hasn’t a clue what should be on it. Our politicians are so out of touch with opinion on the ground that serious research into why we voted No is a prerequisite to a second bite. When the Irish Government has found out what is going on in Ireland, let them return to the top tables of Europe with the findings. They would be better advised not to ask Fine Gael, Labour, the Progressive Democrats, the Greens, trade union chiefs in Ictu, big business bosses in Ibec or the Irish Times.
Just try a few ordinary people. Personally, I voted No principally because of Europe’s threat to our corporate tax rates. I consistently received the technically correct, but unconvincing, riposte that Europe’s tax plans were not in the treaty. Quite right. That was the trouble. They should have been. Ireland needed more protection.
Tax is a life-or-death issue for Ireland. Thousands of others, business people and punters, share my fears. If Europe pushes ahead with demands for the end of our tax advantage, the fragile Irish economy could face meltdown, not just recession. Our European partners (and particularly the French) are driving this particular train at a breakneck pace. They postponed debate pending the referendum, hoping it would not frighten the Yes voters. It did. They rumbled the ambush around the corner. Cynical timing dictated that it was full-speed ahead for an outright assault on Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate once Lisbon was passed. France, the leader of the assault, is due to take over the EU Presidency in two weeks.
It was no coincidence that our referendum was called just before the French took over the presidency. The alternative was an October poll, right in the middle of the reign of those leading the charge against our tax edge. By then, we could have been at war with Europe. So the poll was held in the relative tranquillity of June.
All is now changed.
Enter Cowen’s great opportunity. Far from being weakened, Cowen can hit Brussels this week with a strong hand. Here he is, a committed European, representing a people unwilling to accept an agenda dictated by the big powers. We have proved we are no pushover. Every new treaty will have to give special consideration to Irish interests. We defeated Nice once. Now we have given the thumbs down to Lisbon. We approved Nice the second time round after we had been accommodated.
We are not anti-European but refuse to be taken for granted. Cowen can consistently point to his awkward population back home, who need nurturing more than any others in Europe. On Thursday we gave him the proof, but also the leverage. The Taoiseach can hint that a second referendum is a runner if Irish fears are recognised. He can warn Europe that the assault on our tax is a non-runner. A few months down the road he will agree that a protocol, a declaration or an amendment giving fresh guarantees — signed by all 27 countries — taking tax off the agenda might be enough. If the Taoiseach can return to Ireland with a new treaty, amended to safeguard our 12.5 per cent corporate tax plus one or two other changes, it will probably fly through a second vote.
The campaign will need to be different. The sight of all the main party leaders, apparently uniting to tell us all what is good for us, was a poisonous piece of patronising politics. The contempt of politicians determined to promote themselves — rather than the referendum — on posters trivialised the contest. The glib slogans and the failure to explain Lisbon insulted people. The lessons have been hard learned. But the strength of the No vote can be a priceless card for Ireland in its future dealings with Europe.
Now that we have proved how troublesome we are, it can be turned to our advantage. If Brian Cowen returns from Europe in the coming months with an amended treaty, principally with assurances that Ireland’s corporate tax rate will be protected, I shall have great pleasure in voting Yes to Lisbon Mark Two.