Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, opted for Gaelic charm rather than arrogance yesterday as he visited Dublin in an attempt toreduce the political turbulence over Europe that came after Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum last month.
Though M. Sarkozy may not be a natural conciliator, he attempted to calm the troubled waters, repeatedly insisting that he had no wish to meddle in Irish affairs. Protesters chanted "No means No" as he arrived for talks in Dublin's Merrion Square. "We don't want to push you into anything," he declared. "I did not meddle in any way."
Standing outside Dublin's government buildings where an Irish tricolour fluttered alongside its French counterpart, M. Sarkozy said he had been "fascinated" by what he had heard at a round-table meeting, where more than a dozen supporters and opponents of the Lisbon Treaty each had three minutes to express their views to him. France currently holds the rotating European presidency.
Irish voters' rejection of the treaty caused both the Dublin government and the EU as a whole a major political problem. All EU countries must ratify the treaty and all are on course to do so except the Irish, where the major parties are in favour but last month failed to convince the voters of its merits.
While there is no easy way to proceed with pushing the treaty through, M. Sarkozy and much of Europe evidently favour a referendum rerun. Although that is one of the options for the Irish authorities, those who favour it say the vote could only be re-staged after a slow, careful build-up designed to persuade enough "no" voters to change their minds. Unfortunately, recent remarks attributed to the French President – that "the Irish will have to vote again" – got some backs up. "He gave an appearance of arrogance and bullying," one newspaper editorial complained at the time.
M. Sarkozy was yesterday at pains to point out that he had come to Dublin in a spirit of friendship, and denied uttering the widely reported remark. Although he has been pushing for early action on treaty ratification, he appeared to grasp yesterday that an early vote on Lisbon, even if the treaty incorporated new concessions and clarifications, would probably be lost.
That is certainly the near-unanimous view of the political classes in Dublin, where many say the "no" vote would possibly increase. That was stressed directly to the European President by leaders of major parties. The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, said: "I told him bluntly that a second referendum – if it were put this minute – would be defeated again and there isn't a great deal of point in that."
Mr Gilmore claimed that M. Sarkozy had indicated that there was "a certain time pressure" for movement. Taoiseach Brian Cowen appealed for a long-term approach, stressing "the need for deeper examination, consultation and analysis before we can draw conclusions", adding, "That will take time."
The preferred Irish timetable is for the government to make a report to EU summit in October, preceded by a Sarkozy-Cowen meeting in September. M. Sarkozy yesterday conceded: "We don't have a miracle solution. Ireland needs time. You need time, you will be given time."
Both sides will be hopeful that yesterday's visit will have a soothing effect, after a period of difficulty that undermined Ireland's long-time approval of the EU and affection for its institutions. For much of last week, the visit seemed destined to have the opposite effect, with controversies developing over who should see M. Sarkozy, and for how long.
As expected, the president's visit produced no breakthroughs or even any sense of a road map that might suggest a way out of the Lisbon Treaty quandary. But judging from the leaders' comments, they seemed to have a deeper understanding of the difficulties involved. Mr Cowen in particular may be pleased with the apparent French appreciation that winning a second referendum would be no easy task.
*French lawmakers voted yesterday in favour of a sweeping revision of France's constitution, saving M. Sarkozy from a humiliating defeat. The one-vote victory showed the controversy behind the vote, which gives parliament greater power but also adds privilege to the presidency.
What next for the Lisbon Treaty?
*With France's six-month presidency of the European Union set to finish at the end of the year, President Nicolas Sarkozy is keen to ensure that a solution to keep the Lisbon Treaty alive is found.
*A meeting between EU leaders in October will hear ideas from the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, on how the treaty can progress. France aims to propose a solution by the end of the year. Stating that there will be no new treaty, Mr Sarkozy has said: "It's either Lisbon, or it's Nice."
*The Lisbon Treaty requires all 27 member states of the EU to ratify it – which is only possible if Ireland conducts another referendum. Currently 23 of the 27 countries have approved the treaty.
*Ireland is not the only fly in the ointment. In the Czech Republic it has been referred to the Constitutional Court, and some members of the ruling party, including the President, declared it dead following the Irish referendum. In Poland, President Lech Kaczynski has said it would be "pointless" for him to sign the treaty. However, the Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, supports ratification, and Mr Sarkozy says Mr Kaczynski has assured him that Poland would not stand in the treaty's way.Reuse content