John Lichfield: Out of France

If anyone could win Ireland's Eurosceptics round, it's Ms Bruni
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President Nicolas "six brains" Sarkozy flies to Ireland tomorrow to solve the "new" Irish Question. But there has been only one question on Irish lips in recent days: "Is Carla coming?"

The answer is "non". The Première Dame is too busy selling her new pop album to help her husband rescue the European Union. This is a diplomatic error – and far from M Sarkozy's first on the Question Irlandaise. The entire preparation for the visit by the French President (below), also EU president, was dismissed by one Irish newspaper on Friday as "a French farce".

All the more reason to bring Carla. Hands up those who recall what M Sarkozy did, or said, on his state visit to London in March. Hands up those who remember Carla in her grey suit and pillbox hat. She converted the Eurosceptic, French-baiting section of the British press from lip-curling mockery to tongue-hanging idolatry in the space of two days.

Speaking of the original Irish Question – the home-rule debate of the late 19th century – the authors of 1066 and All That, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, said (to paraphrase): "When the British thought that they had found the answer, the Irish always changed the question." The new Irish Question – why did Ireland reject the EU reform treaty, and what do we do next? – is equally perplexing.

Ireland, the EU country that owes most to the EU, voted last month against the proposed new rules which will allow the larger union to operate more efficiently and more democratically. It is politically incorrect to say so, but this was a very shabby and foolish act: a vote against Ireland's own interests, taken after a referendum campaign dominated by the largely mendacious claims of romantic Irish nationalists, ultra left-wingers and Eurosceptic British newspapers which sell in Ireland, pretending to be Irish papers.

M Sarkozy said last week – and this was his first great diplomatic error – that Ireland would be "made to vote again". No other solution is possible. Re-negotiation, for a second time, is unthinkable. Kicking Ireland out of the EU would be degrading and probably unworkable. Carrying on under the existing rules is conceivable but undesirable. It is also possible to drive a heavy goods vehicle on deflated tyres and without power steering.

By saying that Ireland would be "made to vote again", M Sarkozy was stating the obvious. But in diplomacy it is dangerous to state the obvious. His words – spoken in a supposedly private meeting – dismayed the Irish government. To try to put things right, the Elysée Palace said M Sarkozy would devote his visit to Ireland tomorrow to "listening and learning", rather than laying down the law. It then emerged that his long-planned visit had been cut to just four hours.

Cue further outrage in Ireland. Even those people who voted "yes" to Lisbon hate the idea of the big EU countries patronising, or bullying, little Ireland into submission. Ireland was, after all, the only EU country to be entrusted with a popular vote on the treaty.

To declare an interest: I am not Irish, but I have been happily married to an Irishwoman for 23 years and have three children, brought up largely in France, who consider themselves to be Irish. In the 1980s, in the days of the great and saintly Dr Garret FitzGerald and the great and unsaintly Charles Haughey, I was the Brussels correspondent of two Irish newspapers.

I love Ireland and have been delighted to watch the country's rise to prosperity and self-belief, and its ultimate economic and psychological independence from Britain (and Rome) in the past 15 years. None of that could have happened without the EU. Even the US-brokered solution of the North-South problem – the answer to the old Irish question – could not have been contemplated without Ireland's new-found, EU-inspired economic prosperity and political confidence.

The most depressing aspect of the Irish "No", and the campaign before it, was the evidence that the aggressive, mendacious brand of British Europhobia has crossed the Irish Sea. There has always been a degree of home-grown Irish Euroscepticism, rooted in radical anti-abortion sentiment, leftist anti-market ideology or a mystical belief in Irish neutrality. (Neutral between what and what, exactly?)

In recent years, as Ireland has grown to be one of the most prosperous EU nations, it has also fallen under the media footprint of the largely anti-European British press. The so-called Irish Sun and Irish Sunday Times peddle a diet of anti-Brussels propaganda.

The Lisbon Treaty – much-battered, much-criticised, little-read (and largely unreadable) – is no thing of beauty. EU governments, and especially the Irish government, which fought a feeble "Yes" campaign, deserve some of the blame for the Irish "No". Given a chance, several other countries would have rejected it. Lisbon is, all the same, a largely sensible attempt to make the greater EU work and provide Eastern European countries with the same route to prosperity and self-confidence that Ireland has taken.

The strategy, agreed at the Brussels summit in late June, was to collect a complete set of ratifications by the other 26 countries (22 have now done so) and offer some form of "package of reassurance" to the Irish people in October or December. Only then would the Irish government be, ahem, encouraged to make its own democratic, considered decision that a second Lisbon referendum was justified – and winnable.

The "package of reassurance" will include, no doubt, new declarations that nothing in the treaty threatens Irish neutrality, or the Irish anti-abortion law, or Ireland's status as a low-business-tax country. Exemptions or veto rights are already built into the text, but the "No" campaign managed to persuade many Irish people that these assurances were meaningless.

Ireland did reverse its initial rejection of the Treaty of Nice in 2002 – after the same arguments by "No" campaigners had been answered by a series of similar declarations. M Sarkozy assumes that the same strategy will work again, but he may be wrong. Ireland was prosperous and optimistic in 2002; the international credit crisis has since sent the Irish property market, stock exchange and jobs market into freefall.

Ireland has changed the question, and M Sarkozy will need all the six brains attributed to him by Carla to solve the Lisbon conundrum. He has made a poor start, and even Carla's pillbox hat might not have been sufficient this time.

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