Ireland mulls calling another EU referendum

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Ireland is beginning to ponder calling another EU referendum following proposals by France and Germany to change the Lisbon Treaty in order to introduce a permanent system to handle crises in the euro zone.

The initial response in Irish diplomatic circles is described as "sanguine" by the Irish Times.

"We look forward to hearing more concretely from France and Germany what their proposals are," an Irish official is quoted as saying.

In private, however, the newspaper's sources admitted that there was no appetite in Dublin for anything that could bring the government anywhere near referendum territory.

In a joint statement issued on 18 October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel say the EU treaties need to be modified in order to sanction countries that break budget discipline rules, including a temporary suspension of their EU voting rights.

Sarkozy and Merkel invited EU leaders to ask the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to present "concrete options allowing the establishment of a robust crisis resolution framework before […] March 2011".

The statement adds that "the necessary amendment to the Treaties should be adopted and ratified by member states in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements in due time before 2013".

Lawyers may well argue over whether the Crotty judgment (see 'Background') requires a referral to the people in this instance, but it cannot be argued that any of the mooted changes are insignificant, writes the Irish Times' Brussels correspondent, Arthur Beesley, in an opinion piece.

Britain to follow?

The proposed treaty changes also fuelled discussions on holding a referendum in the UK.

Merkel and Sarkozy's demand for treaty change will put the government of Prime Minister David Cameron under intense pressure to hold a vote on the EU. Indeed, many Tories were angry at Labour's refusal to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, The Telegraph writes.

This is the second time since the Lisbon Treaty's entry into force that EU politicians have considered additional treaty changes. The first was to accommodate 18 'phantom MEPs', which required the organisation of a brief Intergovernmental Conference (IGC).

The issue, seen as of limited importance, did not require a referendum to be held in Ireland.

Ireland was the only EU country to require the Lisbon Treaty to be ratified through a nationwide referendum. In all other EU member states, national parliaments have dealt with the ratification. 

This is due to a 1987 ruling by the country's Supreme Court (Crotty case) which stipulates that significant changes to the European Union treaties require an amendment to the Irish Constitution - which is always changed by means of a referendum - before being ratified by the state. 

Legal opinion is divided on whether the Crotty ruling obliges the government to systematically defer to the Irish people whenever there is a significant new development in the EU legal setting. Nevertheless, as a result of this legal precedent, Ireland has always held a referendum on every new European treaty. 

The issue of the 'lone referendum' has also sparked controversy across the EU. Some have claimed it is unfair and undemocratic for one small country to block reforms for the rest of Europe. 

One year ago, following an intensive campaign, Irish voters approved the Lisbon Treaty by a margin of two to one, lifting the EU out of institutional limbo after years of democratic setbacks and blockages.

The vote followed the initial rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008, which caused widespread consternation among European politicians. 

  • 28-29 Oct.: EU leaders meet in Brussels to discuss reforming euro area's economic governance, as well as their joint position for G20 in November.

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