Downing Street will be pleased that the Irish government has fixed an early date for its second referendum on the European Union's controversial Lisbon Treaty. Ireland is voting a second time, of course, because the Irish electorate had the temerity to vote No the first time.
The Treaty was contentious in Ireland because, critics maintained, Lisbon was just the new EU constitution – which had been rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 – repackaged. Most of Europe's leaders, the British Government included, insisted that it was less radical and so it did not need referenda.
But Irish law demanded they have one and voters were persuaded that the EU would tax them more, promote abortion and send Irish troops into dodgy wars. So they said No. This time around everyone assumes they will say Yes, because the EU seems a safe haven to an Ireland badly hit by the recession. To make sure, the Irish government has secured guarantees from Brussels that Irish incomes, wombs and soldiers will be safe from EU interference.
If Ireland votes Yes, Europe's leaders will be pleased, which is why they have given the guarantees. Once the Irish have said Yes, the Eurosceptic Czech and Polish presidents will be forced to ratify the treaty. Brussels knew that without that ratification the treaty would have become a British general election issue. And since a quarter of those Britons who bothered to go to the poll in recent European parliament elections voted for parties that want to pull out of the EU altogether that was not an encouraging thought. Neither was the possibility of the Conservative Party winning power and calling a referendum on Lisbon here, as they have promised to do if it is not ratified by the time of the next election.
There is no viable alternative to the streamlining of EU power which the Lisbon Treaty involves. It is essential to helping tackle the big issues the world now faces: the recession, regulating the financial system and climate change. But the kind of politicking that continues over Lisbon only underscores the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union. And that deficit adds fuel to the arguments of its muddle-headed critics.