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Will the Tory EPP withdrawal derail Lisbon?

September 3rd, 2009

What are the mechanics of the next nine months?

Ireland’s second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty will take place on 2 October. Assuming it’s passed what happens next could have consequences for the UK election.

Three other countries have yet to ratify. In Germany there’s a legal challenge to the Constitutional Court and secondly – and as a result of the ruling from that challenge – the need to amend some domestic legislation. That is currently scheduled to be done by mid-September, a timetable which just gets the legislation through before the German general election. Should any slippage occur, it’s likely that Germany won’t have ratified before the Irish go to the polls.

In the two countries their presidents dislike the treaty. Neither Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic nor Lech Kaczynski want it to come into force but as so often with EU matters, neither do they want to be the ones to blame for it failing. Consequently, they’ve been waiting in the hope that someone else will kill it off, the Irish being the current excuse for delay.

The most intense pressure on the Czech and Polish leadership is likely to be between the Irish referendum (if it’s a Yes) to the European Council summit on 10-11 December. That’s when their position will be most exposed, their cover for not signing most limited and the lobbying for them to do so the greatest.

The Czechs may however have another device for delay: a referral of the treaty as a whole to their constitutional court – a move which has been mooted and the necessary support for which is claimed. Should it happen, it could yet be crucial in the ratification story as after the European Council, the political dynamics will change. There’s no Council due between January and early May, so the opportunities for lobbying, pressurising, offering incentives and issuing threats will be reduced. Also, it will become much easier to use the uncertainty of the UK general election as a new excuse – instead of it being ‘next year’, it will be ‘in only x weeks’.

If Lisbon is still a live issue come the general election – which really requires an Irish ‘Yes’ as well as Polish and Czech prevarication – that’s likely to have some impact on the campaign and the result. Perhaps the group of voters with the biggest decision to make are UKIP supporters. Although there aren’t many of them (ICM had them at 2% in their August Guardian poll; YouGov at 4% for the Sunday Times), those that there are could realistically make a difference in a dozen or more seats.

Some UKIP voters will stick with their party for ideological reasons whatever the situation with Lisbon, others will be anti-Tory and still others may want to see Lisbon implemented in the hope of discrediting the EU further and so bring withdrawal a step closer. A final group could perhaps be attracted by the prospect of halting Lisbon through the Conservatives’ promised referendum – but that’s only a promise if ratification is still uncertain. So in December, it won’t just be Angela Merkal and Nicholas Sarkozy encouraging Presidents Klaus and Kaczynski to ratify; Gordon Brown is very likely to be doing so too.

Whether that lobbying will be effective remains to be seen but one indication – largely overlooked so far – indicates it might well not be. When the Conservatives left the EPP group in the European Parliament to set up the ECR, the next two biggest parties they attracted were the Polish PiS and the Czech ODS: the parties of each country’s president. All want to stop the Lisbon Treaty and between them, they can probably do so.

Far from having their influence reduced by leaving the EPP, they could play a great role in determining its future. The Conservatives give cover to the other two; they in turn could give the breathing space the Tories need.

Still, all this depends on the Irish doing the right thing by Brussels first and that’s not altogether guaranteed. In the latest opinion poll, the Yes campaign was comfortably ahead but that was over two months ago. The same was true in the run-up to the June 2008 referendum and we all know how that turned out.

David Herdson