Jim Gaffey with Irish president Mary McAleese during a 2007 visit to Atlanta.

Debate in Ireland is always open and very dynamic, to say the least. Every topic is well analyzed by the electorate. This positive way of handling major political issues was again on display as Ireland recently voted on endorsing the next steps in European unity.

Sixteen months ago, Ireland sidelined the building of a stronger European Union when it voted against the Lisbon Treaty. In a second vote on October 3rd, after months of serious debate, and while dealing with its own hobbled economy, Ireland voted 67 percent in favor of the far-reaching pact.

The importance of the vote was best demonstrated by the reaction of José Manuel Barrso, president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, when he said, “My message today is very simple: Thank you Ireland. Ireland has given Europe a new chance.” 

Vote may speed economic recovery

In voting about 2-1 in favor of the treaty, the Irish also gave themselves a better than even chance to be one of the early countries to pull out of the economic slide.

Ireland removed a major impediment to providing a way for approval by Poland and the Czech Republic, the remaining European countries that had, at the time of the vote, yet to endorse the treaty. Ireland’s earlier negative vote was based on a concern among many Irish that it might be giving up some of its hard-earned freedoms. The Irish perceived that the European Union, with its more powerful foreign policy chief and a full-time president, would marginalize Ireland’s elected leaders. 

After Ireland’s favorable vote, John Bruton, the EU’s ambassador to the U.S. said, “This is a huge relief. Now the way is clear to get on with the real work of restoring the lost dynamism of the shared economy of Europe and Ireland.”

There has also been quick and positive response from other member states. France is behind current lobbying for Ireland to head the EU agricultural program in the next European Commission as a way to protect EU farm subsidies.  The French are very eager to have a friendly candidate in the commission post before the EU moves to a common agricultural policy next year. This, tied to a drive to finalize a world trade deal next year, provides a real feather in the cap for Ireland as payback for the positive vote.

Treaty still faces obstacles

The Lisbon Treaty itself is not quite out of the woods. However, one hurdle was quickly overcome when Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, put his signature to the treaty in Warsaw. “The fact that the Irish people changed their minds meant the revival of the treaty, and there are no longer any obstacles to its ratification,” said Mr. Kaczynski in a short speech, adding that it was a “historic” day for both Poland and the European Union.

The Polish signing leaves the Czech Republic as the last major crossroads of opposition to the treaty among the governments of the 27 member states. Czech president Vaclav Klaus is an ardent opponent of further European integration. Mr. Klaus, a so-called Euro skeptic, is demanding an exemption for the Czech Republic from part of a human rights charter that will become binding if he were to provide his signature to the document.

Mr. Klaus fears that by ratifying the treaty in its current form, the Czech Republic could be exposed to long-standing property claims because other ethnic groups were forced off their land when that part of Europe was under control of the Soviet Union.

More recently, a new wrinkle was added. David Cameron, leader of Great Britain‘s Conservative Party, said that if in the next UK election, scheduled for June, his party were to top the polls, he would put the Lisbon Treaty to the people in the form of a referendum.

The one-sidedness of the Irish vote, which by some is being described as an outcome of a stronger pro-treaty campaign by Ireland’s business and political establishment, is actually a call to arms to turn around Ireland’s depressed economy. The earlier vote was perceived by the rest of the EU as the Irish biting the hand that had helped to feed it. Ireland joined the EU in 1973. As a result of its membership and very friendly business tax rate, along with a good deal of its own ingenuity, it grew to become one of Europe’s success stories. Since the worldwide economic downturn, the economy has collapsed, with ever-increasing unemployment.

With the vote approving the Lisbon treaty, Ireland has sent a very strong signal that it is back in the game.  Coincidental to the treaty vote and the economic downturn, Ireland had been morphing into a knowledge-based society. It is moving up the food chain from heavy agriculture and manufacturing to high-tech jobs as companies move there to take advantage of the highly educated workforce.

As the EU adjusts to the new reality and begins to restructure along the tenets of the Lisbon Treaty, it must work through the demands of each of its member states and show the patience that it certainly showed to Ireland. The next few months will be very telling.

Jim Gaffey of Atlanta is president of The Gaffey Group, an international trade consultancy who frequently travelled to Ireland and has hosted numerous Irish trade delegations in Atlanta. E-mail him at jfgaffey@bellsouth.net or call at (770) 448-0685.