A Rentrée of Doubt and Anticipation

Rarely has the Brussels rentrée occurred in such a muddle of doubt and anticipation. Doubt because the October 2 Irish referendum could kill the Lisbon Treaty for good; anticipation because approval of Lisbon should open up new capabilities for Europe and settle the constitutional uncertainty which has dogged the EU for so many years – and provide some jobs for the boys.

The Irish Times reports that support for a “yes” vote slipped eight points in a recent opinion poll, with 46 per cent in favour, 29 per cent against and 25 per cent don’t knows – and that’s just four weeks before the vote. Irish political leaders have started to raise the tempo of their campaign, but the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has confirmed that contingency plans are being drawn up to apply the terms of the Nice Treaty in the event of an Irish rejection.

Of course even a “yes“ vote in Ireland is not quite the end of the affair. Germany, Poland or the Czechs could delay ratification well into 2010, raising the hopes of some British Conservative eurosceptics that a victory in a June 2010 general election would allow them to hold a referendum, steer a de-ratification through the Westminster Parliament and so block the treaty. A mouth-watering prospect for constitutional lawyers!

The hero of these eurosceptics is of course Czech President Vaclav Klaus who has so far refused to sign the act of ratification and is determined to be the last to do so. Germany now appears to be on the brink of approval having agreed more national scrutiny of EU legislation. The Polish president has yet to sign.

It’s looking inevitable that the present Commission, which would normally step down on October 31, will be asked to remain in office for some months until the treaty is fully ratified, taking its term beyond the Copenhagen post-Kyoto summit, but at least Barroso should provide continuity into a new college provided that he can secure the approval of the European Parliament on (probably) September 16 following this week’s meetings with the political groups.

I was particularly intrigued to learn that the EP vote on the Commission president would be through secret ballot. A defeat for Barroso would be an interesting test of party loyalty – but I suppose we’d never know who the rebels were.