Peter Ludlow: Merkel can lead the EU out of the crisis

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The key figure to find a way out of the crisis following the failed Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum is Angela Merkel, the founding director of the Centre for European Policy Studies and the director of the European Strategy Forum, Peter Ludlow, told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Peter Ludlow is currently the director of the European Strategy Forum and chairman of Eurocomment. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

With your wide experience of EU affairs, you can certainly remember many other crises. You can put the present crisis following the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty into a much wider context. What is your analysis of the present situation? 

Every political system lives by crises. There are of course certain particular features in the case of the EU and more particularly the need, when we come to intergovernmental conferences of treaties, for everybody to ratify. There have been other episodes of this kind, starting back in 1992 when the Danes voted against the Maastricht treaty. The Irish themselves have already voted against one of the previous treaties, the Treaty of Nice. 

So we have been here before, and of course we have the French and the Dutch. I think one has to take the present situation seriously, but I don’t think it should be over-dramatised. And this is because the situation in 2008 is very different from 2005, when the French and the Dutch said ‘no’. 

One of the differences, but I don’t think it’s the most important, is that France is a very big country and France and the Netherlands are founding members of the European Community. Ireland is a smaller country, but I don’t think that’s why the present situation is so different. I think the main difference is that we have been working at this treaty, in one way or another, since December 2001, when the Convention was first established. 

We’re all aware the European Union of 27 needs its procedures improving. Of course there are eye-catching elements in the Lisbon Treaty such as the creation of a President of the European Council, but to understand the importance of the treaty you have to go to its details and see how many areas it covers, and how it improves or should improve the working of the institutions. 

We’ve known from a long time we needed this, we’ve been working on it a long time. There was a big crisis in 2005, a really big crisis. The heads of state and government decided after a year they would go back and renegotiate a new treaty, which incorporates a great deal of the Constitutional Treaty. And this is no surprise, because the Constitutional Treaty was not a luxury, it was a necessity. And the Lisbon Treaty is even more of a luxury and even more of a necessity. We just need a change to procedures. A problem of the kind that has now arisen is less dramatic, but at the same time more tiresome than when the French and the Dutch said ‘no’. 

Basically it’s a disturbing ‘déja vu’? 

To be frank, everybody wants to put the thing away and not have to spend important time on institutional reform. Of course, the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t settle everything forever, there will always be a need for institutional adjustment or institutional change, but everybody thought that we were going now to put this long period behind us, and then came the Irish ‘no’. In the circumstances the overwhelming view is that we must respect the Irish, we must find what led 25% of their electorate to say ‘no’, what went wrong, but I don’t think there is any enthusiasm at all for a new treaty negotiation of the kind we embarked on in 2007 under Angela Merkel. 

The likelier outcome is a quiet period of discussion with the Irish, they will be dealt with most sympathetically, but in the end I’m sure they will be offered whatever declarations and soothing words they would like, within reason, but without modifications to the Treaty. Then they will vote again and if they say ‘no’, there is determination to find solutions which we will enable the 26 or the 25, if the Czechs embark on the same boat, to go ahead on the basis of the Treaty of Lisbon, without pushing the Irish and the Czechs out of the Union. 

But then you will have a ‘Europe á la carte…’ 

No, you will have a Europe of 25, 26, based on the Treaty of Lisbon, and you have Ireland, as you have Switzerland, as you have Norway… 

But these are outside the Union… 

Yes, and Ireland will be more in than out. What needs to be said to the Irish is: we have to get on with this. We are not going to negotiate treaties forever, we need a treaty. And there are limits how long we can all wait. It’s a pointless situation for the EU to be paralysed. There will be a strong desire, probably apparent at this Council meeting to play calmly, quietly. The key figure in this is always Ms.Merkel. She has already said – we need to take the Irish problem seriously, but we must have the Lisbon Treaty. How we reconcile these two assertions is the character of the story for the next six months or so. 

What is the time constraint? 

Clearly there is not going to be a new treaty enforced in January 2009, as originally intended. But it would be seriously inconvenient if we didn’t have the new treaty in place before the European parliamentary elections in the middle of next year, because the new Parliament should be elected on the basis of the new composition and on the basis of the new rulebook. 

How bad is it if it proves impossible? 

It’s highly inconvenient, and that’s why everybody wants to have this thing settled. When there is determination to sort out problems, politicians usually sort out problems. The Irish political class are extremely embarrassed, I’m sure they will bending over backwards to find some way of helping. And we will find a solution. It would be premature to describe the details of the solution, it could take the form of declarations in the second vote, or it take the form of letting the others go ahead and negotiating a special relationship. 

Is the ‘no’ vote the result of bad communication? 

I think we have to be very careful that we don’t allow ourselves to fall into what is a grotesque heresy – to claim as many opponents of the European Union are doing, even some media who are sympathetic toward the European Union are doing – to give the impression that referenda are somehow a pure form of democracy, even of parliamentary democracy. This is complete nonsense. 

Referenda are, historically, a very unreliable way of arriving at political decisions. To claim as some commentators did that the Irish referendum is a vote for democracy, as if the vote of the 19 parliaments who have now ratified were somehow undemocratic, is just grotesque. It’s a claim by people who have other motives and other interests in mind. There is a need for communication. But the principal communicators have to be not so much the Commission or Ms. Wallstrom, but the member states. This is a union of states which works through the governments of the states. 

Obviously Mr. Cowen has not been a good communicator? 

No, obviously not, and I think it has been generally recognised that the Irish government, not only the government, because it had, apart from Sinn Fein all the political parties on the platform with it, ran an extremely poor campaign. The Irish political class has clearly got a problem. 

But you seem confident that the Irish do not want to leave the Union?

All the opinion polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of the Irish are in favour of their EU membership, which is not at all surprising given how well they’ve done in the EU. 

Perhaps the right question the Irish should answer is ‘Do you want to stay in an EU governed by the Treaty of Lisbon’? 

That would in effect be the question to be asked in the second referendum. In effect it could not be put in those terms, but it will be made quite clear that if there is a ‘no’ vote the 25 or the 26 will have to take steps to assure that at least they can go ahead based on the Treaty of Lisbon. 

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