The problems keep piling up for Nicolas Sarkozy: his neoliberal counter-reforms make him more unpopular than ever at home, a lacklustre French team was comprehensively beaten at Euro 2008 and the Irish people have just rejected the Lisbon Treaty – a text which the French President insists on calling “his” Treaty.
For Sarkozy, the Irish vote is nothing short of a personal disaster as France will be chairing the European Union from 1st July onwards. Sarkozy had already written the script of what was set to be a triumphant presidency. Setting up the new institutions set out in the Lisbon Treaty should have been one of Sarkozy’s top priorities. This would have included appointing a new EU Foreign minister and a permanent EU President in place of the rotating presidencies. Alas, the Irish seem to have spoiled the Sarko show before it even got started.
The representatives of all member states met in Brussels last week to address the latest episode of the long running EU “crisis”. They issued a statement which ironically alleged that “(…) the Treaty of Lisbon aims to help an enlarged Europe to act (…) in a more democratic manner”. Bernard Kouchner, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, later exposed his conception of “European democracy”. He branded the Irish “ungrateful” and declared: “We ought to give the Irish time to explain their reasons for rejecting the Treaty”.
In plain speaking, Kouchner reckons that the Irish No vote is unacceptable, illegitimate and therefore should be discarded. The trouble is that in a democracy, the will of the people is supposed to prevail; otherwise the act of ruling can no longer be deemed… democratic. What is more, when it comes to ratifying Community treaties, the unanimity rule applies. It therefore takes one negative vote in any of the member states to put the whole ratification process to rest. Whether Kouchner likes it or not, the Lisbon Treaty is now irrevocably dead.
Sarkozy’s threat to block any future enlargement so long as a “Reform Treaty” has not been adopted smacked of desperation. In truth, the EU can continue to work under the Nice Treaty (whatever the outcome of the Irish vote, the voting system was set to remain in force until 2014). Furthermore, institutional changes to make the EU work better could be implemented without a new major treaty.
Will the Irish vote affect Sarkozy’s ambitious agenda for the French presidency? It is assumed that talks about laying the ground for an EU defence force and common EU defence policy or about common EU immigration and asylum policy will go ahead. France may also use the presidency to push its idea for a “carbon tariff” on imports coming from “polluting countries” (such as China).
It will definitely try to flesh out Sarkozy’s pet topic of a Mediterranean Union. In reality, since last week, these issues are no longer a priority. One can expect that most efforts will focus on finding ways to resolve the latest EU “crisis”. We have been there before. As recently as 2001, the Irish rejected the Nice Treaty. As they had voted “wrongly”, the Eurocracy ordered them to vote again.
This time round, it would be a bigger gamble to ask the Irish to vote again. A new referendum seems unlikely (at least in the near future) given that when the French rejected the Constitution in 2005, a revote was never considered an option.
Supported by a majority of Socialist parliamentarians who renegated on their pledge to demand a referendum, Sarkozy was successful in persuading the Parliament to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The shameful collusion between the President and the leadership of the Socialist Party angered many voters. Last February, opinion polls showed that between 70 and 80% of the electorate wanted to be consulted on the Lisbon Treaty. Last week, a poll run for Sud Ouest newspaper indicated that more than 53% of the French would have rejected the new treaty, had they been given a chance to vote. Last November, Sarkozy had quite unwisely conceded to journalists in Brussels that a “referendum in France or in the UK would be lost”. At the weekend, Nicolas Sarkozy and Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, engaged in a war of words over who is to blame for the Irish fiasco. Sarkozy accused Mandelson of being largely responsible for the Irish No vote because of his “free trade” agenda which allegedly scared Irish farmers.
Mandelson may have an ultraliberal agenda on trade matters; however for Sarkozy to target his politics is a bit rich. Since he has been in office, Sarkozy has consistently followed the same laissez-faire agenda on pensions, working hours, public services, taxes, etc. There are indeed no major political differences between the two men. The public spat was yet another desperate attempt from Sarkozy to deflect attention from his own shortcomings. Sarkozy must have seen that Mandelson was a perfect scapegoat for the French public: a committed free marketer and arch-Blairite.
For all his hypocritical posturing on Mandelson and free markets, Sarkozy has failed to convince the French that the Lisbon Treaty was any different from the text that they had so emphatically rejected in 2005. During the 2007 presidential election, Sarkozy had promised the electorate that he would “respect their vote” and acknowledged that the Constitution was dead. Sarkozy alleged that the Lisbon Treaty was a “simplified” version of the Constitution and for that reason, it should be ratified by the parliament.
Few were convinced by Sarkozy’s argument. A majority of voters felt that the Lisbon Treaty was essentially a rehashed version of the Constitution. In the end, many in France expressed their satisfaction at the Irish No vote. Some considered that they had voted by proxy.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves: a defiant French public is losing patience with an undemocratic and economically laissez-faire EU. This is not the kind of Europe people want. Indeed, both at home and in the EU, the same problems keep piling up for Sarkozy.
Philippe Marlière teaches French and EU politics at University College London (UK) since 1994. He is also an activist on the left-wing of the French Socialist Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org