The future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’: many uncertainties

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?


Conclusions of the European Council of December 2008 on the fate of the Lisbon Treaty

Overcoming the crisis created by the Irish ‘No’ in June 2008 was one of the French Presidency’s main priorities. However, now that this presidency has come to an end, the institutional future of the European Union still remains quite unclear. The European Council that was held on 11 and 12 December in Brussels – the third and last European Council organized by the French Presidency – was supposed to be a privileged occasion for the member states to tackle different important questions, namely: Economical and Financial issues, Energy and Climate Change, Agricultural Policy, the CFSP, but above all, the fate of the Lisbon Treaty. This issue was especially important for the French Presidency, considering that getting Europe out of the crisis generated by the Irish ‘No’ had been defined has one of its major priorities. The government had announced clearly its intention to have all member states agreeing on the roadmap it was about to propose during this Council, underlining the fact that all Irish requests would be taken into account. In France, media attention was mainly focused on this issue, “the most burning issue of the French Presidency”.[1] Most observers seem to consider the outcome of this summit as a large success, given that an agreement on the Lisbon Treaty has finally been achieved. Various members of the French government even qualified this agreement as ‘historical’. According to Le Monde, the outcome of this Council was a main political victory for the French Presidency.[2] However, the non-adoption of the treaty, and the uncertainty concerning when it will finally enter into force, has complicated a number of institutional issues.

Upcoming European Parliament elections: “one should not expect a miracle”

The European Parliament (EP) elections in June 2009 are surrounded by uncertainties, given that it has not been decided whether the Nice Treaty or the Lisbon Treaty would apply. Different media emphasised the efforts made by President Nicolas Sarkozy in order to solve this problem as soon as possible, but also underlined the ‘deep confusion’ surrounding the future of the EU, and the fact that the impact of the Irish ‘No’ is all the more important in the context of the upcoming EP elections.[3] As underlined by French MEP Alain Lamassoure, group of the European People’s Party (EPP), “the MEPs need to know which Treaty will be in force for the elections, or they will remain in an untenable situation, in which both candidates and voters ignore the exact powers given to the persons elected”.[4] The also former Secretary of State for European Affairs underlined the fact that the Irish ‘No’ was nothing but a ‘misunderstanding’, advocating for enforcement of the Lisbon Treaty before these elections.[5] According to “Notre Europe’s” Steering Committee, these elections of the new Parliament in June 2009 will be an opportunity to strengthen the legitimacy of the new Commission’s leadership.[6] However, Bruno Cautrès (Sciences Po), considers that one should not expect a miracle for the next elections.[7] The last Eurobarometer shows that only 16 percent of the citizens know about them, and only 10 percent are intending to vote.[8] Others are challenging the European feature of these elections, arguing that they are nothing more than 27 national elections, with 27 different electoral laws.[9] According to Harald Greib (Newropeans), a true European democracy would only be possible if all European voters could elect their representatives in the framework of a unique European election.[10]

The formation of a new Commission: discussion on the President and the French Commissioner

Debates about the future of the EU also concern the European Commission. The agreement reached with the Irish representative has been quite well welcomed in France, which is very attached to its Commissioner: “How could we possibly imagine a Commission which would not include a French or a German Commissioner?” declared the President of the French Senate Foreign Affair’ Committee, Josselin de Rohan.[11] More generally, “Le Monde” reports that the Commission is facing insider criticism. Many consider it to be too cautious and absent, others see it as being too rigid and inflexible.[12] French daily newspaper notes, however, that the destinies of institutions are often linked to those of the people who are leading them, and stands rather critical towards the ‘opaque Barroso’.[13] For this reason, debates regarding the future President of the future Commission are crucial. Paris seems to consider that José Manuel Barroso would be the best candidate for its own succession. According to “Libération”, the Socialists will not “engage a hopeless battle” and would not put forward a candidate. This position is criticised by the Greens, as well as by the centre party “Mouvement Démocrate” (MODEM). According to green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “it is unbelievable to be doomed from the start like that”. Marielle de Sarnez (MODEM) points her critics at Barroso, who “failed and was unable to propose anything. There is a need for a President that does not behave like a Secretary for member states”.[14] As for the future French Commissioner, Jacques Barrot declared that he would be interested in enrolling for a second term. However, the name of Michel Barnier, former Commissioner, is now on many lips.[15]

Critics regarding the appointment of the High Representative

In comparison with all these crisis and challenges for the French Presidency, debates on the High Representative have been a lot more discreet. Alain Lamassoure, French Member of the European Parliament and former State Secretary for European Affairs, criticized the mode of designation of this High representative, “left to secret negotiations between Heads of State and Government”.[16] He advocated for a more transparent mode of designation, standing in favour of a designation after the Parliamentary elections, in June 2009. Different members of the government – such as Bruno le Maire, the new State Secretary for European Affairs – are highlighting the need of a powerful high representative: “There is need for a powerful Commission, a powerful Parliament, and a powerful High Representative. It is when all the institutions are powerful that the EU is influential itself”.[17] As underlined by different media, the main problem lies in the fact that its nomination process and exact competences remain unclear.

2. Transatlantic Relations Renewed after President Bush: Top Priorities


Hope may be replaced with deception

In France, like in other EU member states, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has been warmly welcomed. French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his letter of congratulations to Obama informed him of the immense hope in France, Europe and beyond: “the hope of an open America, characterized by solidarity and strength that will once again lead the way, with its partners, through the power of its example and the adherence to its principles”.[18] According to philosopher André Glucksman, this hope even led European public opinion to overlook the more inconvenient sides of Barack Obama. Europeans, he thinks, have delegated to him the task of looking after the woes of the world and the challenges of the near future.[19] According to Ezra Suleiman, political science Professor, they are expecting too much and this hope may be replaced with deception.[20]

First priority: reinforcing multilateralism

Cooperation is the keyword of French observers regarding US-EU relations. On climate change, peacekeeping in the Middle East, the nuclear question in Iran, or relations with Russia, Europeans hope that Obama will change US attitudes and put an end to unilateralism.[21] However, many experts remain lucid about these expectations. The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hubert Védrine, admits that Europeans have an opportunity because every change in US administration opens a window for discussions.[22] Furthermore, the new administration will certainly not be as unilateralist as its predecessor. But people may be disappointed if they believe that the United States will now decide things collectively. According to Benoît Chevalier, Professor at Sciences Po, “There is no do-gooder approach to wait from Obama, who will defend US interests like any other president”.[23] And this statement concerns different policies on which Europeans are expecting more cooperation with the United States.

Second priority: diplomacy and global order

On many international issues, EU member states were reluctant to follow US policy. “Le Monde” reminds in its editorial that the European troika in charge of negotiations with Iran on the nuclear question hardly managed to define a clear strategy, between its willingness to help Iran to build its own civilian nuclear industry (on the condition that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program), and its readiness to impose sanctions in the event of a refusal. This situation was also the consequence of European fear that the US would respond to an Iran threat with military action. Washington will soon join the negotiations. As Obama repeatedly insisted on the need for the US to revive diplomatic relations with Teheran, European expectations are high on this issue.[24] Another test for transatlantic relations, “Le Monde” argues, will be Afghanistan. As Obama has indicated it to be pivotal in the struggle against terrorism, he intends to send in more troops but he is expecting Europe to do the same. The question is whether Europeans will be ready to follow the new president in this direction.[25]

Third priority: trade relations in a context of economic crisis

Economic and trade relations will also be a key issue for transatlantic relations. Many experts observe that the financial and economic crisis could lead to more protectionism from both sides of the Atlantic. Hubert Védrine reminds that Obama voted against all the last free trade agreements.[26] He thinks that the US will not turn inwards, but it will surely try to protect its national industries against Asian competition. According to Dominique Moïsi from IFRI “French Institute for International Relations”, state aids to national industry leaders could destabilise international cooperation, just like the tariffs barriers did in the past.[27]

Climate change and the future of the Kyoto Protocol

Another crucial issue for EU-US relations is climate change policy. According to French environment and energy expert Pierre Radanne, the United States will be back into climate negotiations after the election of Obama.[28] This raises the issue of leadership at the international level. Brice Lalonde, former Minister for the Environment and now French ambassador for climate change, assumes that because of the EU being self-centred with its energy climate package, leadership failed in Poznan, for the 14th UN Conference on Climate.[29] Noëlle Lenoir, former Minister for European Affairs, even fears that whereas European member states seem to renounce to ambitious targets in this sector, there is a high risk that the United States will take its leadership and impose its norms and technologies on the rest of the world.[30]

Florence Autret, a French journalist, summarised the upcoming challenges for transatlantic relations. According to her, on all these issues (diplomacy, economy or environment) the election of Barack Obama will place Europe face to face with its own responsibilities.[31]

3. The EU response to the financial crisis and challenge of global governance.


EU needs to play a determinant role

All political and economical actors, as well as observers in France, strongly underlined the determinant role that the European Union needs to play in the regulation of financial capitalism. The French Presidency announced its willingness to strengthen and increase the EU prerogatives in terms of financial regulation, especially on financial institutions.[32] Nicolas Sarkozy underlined the necessity of reinforcing the rules of governance and internal control within these institutions, and of a better control of rating agencies. The report elaborated by French ‘Commissaire aux Comptes’, René Ricol, on the financial crisis draws conclusions leading to this direction. Among them, it suggests to allow the European Parliament to tackle the issue of the recent increase of raw material’s prices.[33] As for French Trade Unions, they are largely advocating for a strong role of the EU in regulating the economic and financial system. As the major Trade Union CFDT points out, “the positive role of tense periods is to rediscover the role of the EU and its institutions […] Managing these difficulties imposed urgent and coordinated initiatives with undreamt success, even regarding the financial crisis”.[34]

Unity prevailed throughout the crisis

From a general point of view, the way EU member states managed to deal with the financial crisis are quite well evaluated in France. The unity that prevailed between the member states is the first point underlined by political actors. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, was proud to announce the good understanding among the European member states. He also highlighted the fact that France stands firmly in favour of a new international regulation system, which should be transparent and well controlled.[35] French MEP Alain Lamassoure also underlined the fact that the EU managed to stand united to deal with the financial crisis, qualifying the October European Council, in which the Action Plan has been unanimously approved by the 27 member states, as “exceptional”.[36] Even if the tense relations between the French and German Heads of State have been emphasised, the final compromise, very important for the success of the Eurogroup meetings, is considered as a political victory.[37] The Action Plan adopted by the 15 members of the Eurogroup is seen as a good way to preserve the financial system stability.

All political, social and economical actors, as well as experts and observers, are advocating for more regulation on the international stage. However, the G20 Summit, held in November 2008 in Washington, in which the EU advocated for a complete revision of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been considered with some scepticism in France. Even the President of the IMF, French economist Dominique Strauss Kahn, underlined the fact that changes in the international system will not be easy to reach. “Things are not going to change from one day to another. It took two years to prepare Bretton Woods. A lot of people are talking about a Bretton Woods II. It sounds good but we are not going to create a new international Treaty”, he said.[38]




[1] Le Monde, 12 December 2008.
[2] Ibid.
[3] La Tribune, 30 September 2008.
[4] Euractiv, 30 September 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009)
[5] Ibid.
[6] Notre Europe, “In the face of crisis, there is a need for Europe”, Declaration of Notre Europe’s Steering Committee, 7 November 2008.
[7] Interview,, 17 December 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[8] Euractiv, 17 December 2008.
[9] Newropeans, 11 January 2009.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Compte-rendu des débats au Sénat, 09 December 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[12] Le Monde, 21 November 2008.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Libération, 21 November 2008.
[15] Libération, 11 December 2008.
[16] Interview, Le Cercle des Européens, 6 June 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009)
[17] Le Maire B., Enseignements de la présidence Française, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[18] Letter of congratulations from President Nicolas Sarkozy to President-elect Barack Obama, 05 November 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[19] Le Figaro, 12 November 2008.
[20] Le Nouvel Observateur, 06 November 2008.
[21] AFP, 06 November 2008.
[22] Interview, Les Echos, 06 November 2008.
[23] Le Nouvel Observateur, 05 November 2008.
[24] Le Monde, 19 November 2008.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Védrine H., op. cit.
[27] Les Echos, 31 December 2008.
[28] Radanne P., Note pour la fondation Terra Nova, 03 December 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[29] Libération, 15 December 2008.
[30] Lenoir N., “Le leadership européen sur le climat a des chances d’être dépassé par les Etats-Unis”, Le Cercle des Européens, 12 November 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[31] Interview,, 05 November 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009)
[32] La Tribune, 02 September 2008.
[33] Ricol R., Rapport sur la crise financière, Septembre 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).
[34] CFDT, “L’Europe active, utile et efficace”, 15 December 2008, Communiqué de presse, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009)
[35] Gestion internationale de la crise financière. Réponse du Ministre des Affaires Etrangères et Européennes, M. Bernard Kouchner, à une question d’actualité au Sénat, Paris, 30 October 2008.
[36] L’Express, 17 October 2008
[37] Le Point, 10 October 2008.
[38] Interview, LCI, 08 November 2008.