Sarkozy holds key to Lisbon puzzle

THE French riot police, the CRS, stormed an otherwise placid Strasbourg this week to mark the appearance at the European Parliament of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Andrew Duff MEP

THE French riot police, the CRS, stormed an otherwise placid Strasbourg this week to mark the appearance at the European Parliament of Nicolas Sarkozy. The French President is fun to watch, like a small prize fighter on a constant sugar rush.

He lasted three and a half hours in the ring, batting away a large number of questions and speeches from an assortment of MEPs from the fascist to the communist. It was a good performance.

Sarkozy is a man of action. Action, he said, is risky, but inaction is worse. He intends to take ambitious steps to solve the problem caused by the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. The clue to a resolution of the crisis, it becomes clear, is to strike the right balance between applying pressure on the Irish to change their minds and bull-dozing them out of the way.

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The new French presidency of the EU, in office until January, is in a good position to find a solution to the crisis. France itself said no the constitutional treaty in 2005, and then under Sarkozy, changed its mind by accepting the Lisbon treaty. A central part of his message to MEPs was that international treaties are best dealt with by parliaments and not by referendums.

Ireland has one last chance to keep itself in the mainstream. It can think twice and change its mind. Or it can wield its legal veto against the Lisbon treaty and block something earnestly desired and entirely needed by its 26 EU partners.

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When France and Holland said no in 2005 major efforts were made by their partners (including Ireland) to accommodate them. Europe without the Dutch and French was inconceivable. But in 2008 the context has changed. There will be no new renegotiation of the Union's constitutional treaties in order to keep Ireland on board. Dublin is beginning to realise that Ireland is not indispensable to the rest of the Union. A second no will have drastic consequences for the Irish.

Here Britain's position is critical. The UK copied France and Holland in rejecting the constitutional treaty in 2005. It has again followed them in making a U-turn and has now accepted the Lisbon treaty, thereby leaving Ireland on its own. President Sarkozy made a great play in Strasbourg of being nice to the British. “Europe needs the United Kingdom' he said. 'If Britain has one foot in and one foot out, Europe is weakened.”

Let's hope Sarkozy succeeds where others have failed. It will be essential to have a final decision on Lisbon in good time before next June's elections to the European Parliament. This time it will be a simple choice for the voter in East Anglia. The Lib Dems and Labour say yes to Europe; everyone else says no.

Andrew Duff is the Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England.

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