Ireland says ‘yes’ and Brussels bustles

Sometimes — more often through good fortune than good planning — you’re in the place where history happens. Innocently touring the Big Apple one September a few years back and bang, history hits you over the head. Or, having watched the “Sorry” apology live from Canberra, you can say you were there when it was said.

Well last weekend in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, something equally momentous took place, symbolically at least. I’d come to the Belgian capital because it’s easy to get to from my home in Amsterdam (just a few hours’ drive down the road), and the prospect of cafés with hundreds of boutique beers on tap held some allure, too. To be truthful, it was Tintin I was after, for a new museum dedicated to Brussels-born artist Hergé and his infamous cartoon creation opened earlier this year.

But after a Saturday night sampling more fruit-flavoured brews than you can poke a chocolate waffle at, I woke Sunday morning to cheers and raucous behaviour unheard of in these parts since Napoleon met his match in nearby Waterloo. No, it wasn’t the finish of the Brussels marathon across the 12th-century cobblestones of the nearby Grand Place (central square) that disturbed my sleep-in; nor was it expat Melburnians celebrating another Storm premiership. No, Ireland had voted “yes” for the Lisbon Treaty. And the metaphorical singin’ and dancin’ that followed means the European Parliament, European Commission and the European Court of Justice will be getting an overdue structural overhaul. Full details at Europa — Lisbon Treaty.

What is this Lisbon Treaty?

Primarily it will enact reforms to modernise and rationalise an ageing constitution and institution that evolved during the ’50s and ’60s; a piecemeal body that in 1973 had grown from six to nine members, then facing a world vastly different from that encountered by the 27 nations today. The Lisbon Treaty — so-called because members signed the original undertaking at a meeting in the Portuguese capital in December 2007 — also removes some national vetoes as well as creating a charter of fundamental rights.

Ratification by individual member nations has progressed steadily since then, all by parliamentary vote. Ireland, however, was the only country to put such a vote to a popular referendum. The two outstanding member nations yet to sign on the dotted line — Poland and the Czech Republic — are expected to rubber stamp it by year’s end. So essentially, the treaty is home and hosed.

What a difference a year makes

In June 2008, Ireland voted a resounding “no” to ratify this very same treaty. But as with any good democracy, if an outcome doesn’t suit or times change, go to the polls again. And Ireland did just that last weekend, voting on essentially the same question of ratification, and a two-thirds majority said “yes” this time. Seems a little financial pain in the interim has caused a rethink in the Emerald Isle about their place in Europe, especially with the real estate market in freefall and an economy shrinking by almost 9% over the past year.

But things could have been much worse. Banks in Ireland were bailed out with funds from the European central bank. And for a case study of how they might have fared without such assistance, the Irish only need look north-west across the Atlantic at Iceland to see what non-EU membership might mean in times of dire fiscal strife.

Release the hounds, err lobbyists

Of the treaty’s proposed changes, by far the most contentious will be the new permanent role of a president of the European Council of Heads of State. The position will effectively “speak for Europe” as a single entity, and for a two-and-a-half-year fixed term, instead of the rotating parochialism of national leaders in charge for six months, as is currently the case.

An additional role will be the union’s High Representative, essentially creating a European Head of Foreign Affairs and Security. This same position will also assume the Vice-Presidency of the Commission, as well as chair the External Relations Council.

These two senior appointments can theoretically provide Europe for the first time with a unified voice, not just on EU security and foreign affairs, but also on such pan-global issues as climate change, environmental regulation, terrorism and human rights abuses such as people smuggling; the latter having a higher profile in Europe than in Australia.

And the contenders for these new roles are already lining up. Talk on the streets of Brussels on Sunday morning was not just the handy time of the marathon winner, Abraham Potongole (2:15:20) from Kenya, but who’ll get the top EU gigs. Former British PM Tony Blair is reportedly polishing his CV as you read this, though he’s denied any such discussions. The current Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, is also being mentioned in despatches, as is Luxemburg’s Jean-Claude Juncker.

But amid such speculation as to who might fill the new top job, it occurred to me that the obvious candidate was staring us in all in the face. He is just down the road from central Brussels in the city’s southern suburbs at Rue de Labrador, 26, in Louvain-la-Neuve. I paid him a visit and learned Tintin has all the credentials, experience, diplomacy and staff to take the European Council into the 21st century. And more. Consider his highly successful exploits combating the challenges of:

  • Diminishing energy resources — Land of Black Gold — # 15
  • Organised crime — Tintin in the Congo — # 2
  • Drug smuggling — Cigars of the Pharaohs — # 4
  • Climate issues — The Shooting Star — # 10
  • Space exploration — Destination Moon — # 15
  • Technology and innovation — The Calculus Affair — # 18
  • International forgery — The Black Island — # 7.

And as for diplomatic skills, anyone who’s had to deal with Capitaine Haddock and the Society of Sober Sailors, as our Tintin and Snowy the fox terrier have, would be more than capable of handling the competing egos and partisan interests that only the European Council can unearth.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are finalising the President’s job description this week. Anticipated remuneration includes a £250,000 salary ($A456,000), car and driver, 20 domestic and admin staff as well as a housing allowance. Appointments could be announced before Christmas. A choice between Tintin and Blair would be a lay-down misere: The boy-man who resembles what Kevin Rudd once looked like would win fair and square. And if he does, I’ll be able to say, when history happened with Ireland’s vote, that I was there.

Send Crikey a letter from wherever you live or may be passing through to [email protected] with the title “Letter from” in the subject field.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.