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Thursday 14 December 2017

Cowen tries to ease fears of referendum over euro reforms

Brian Cowen arrives at the summit in Brussels yesterday. Photo Reuters
Brian Cowen arrives at the summit in Brussels yesterday. Photo Reuters

Fionnan Sheahan in Brussels

Taoiseach Brian Cowen indicated to European leaders that Ireland probably won't need a referendum to support a new deal aimed at strengthening the euro.

The EU has agreed to set up a permanent emergency fund for countries in danger of not being able to repay their national debt and to tighten rules on spending.

Mr Cowen also chalked up brownie points with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by not threatening to block her plans with a warning that a referendum would be needed in Ireland, which would probably be lost.

Germany pressed hard at a meeting of EU leaders to reopen the Lisbon Treaty and bring in punishments for breaches of borrowing limits.

Mr Cowen made clear his opposition to a German proposal to remove voting rights from countries that broke spending-deficit rules and to reopen the treaties for major changes.

The wide-ranging reforms demanded by Germany would most likely have affected the Lisbon, Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, meaning a referendum in Ireland.

But the Irish Independent understands Mr Cowen strategically avoided playing a referendum scare card.

He simply told EU leaders that the Government would have to wait and see the wording being brought forward and gave the impression a referendum would not be needed -- provided the changes were only small.

"Everybody was waiting for Ireland to say: 'we'll lose a referendum'. Cowen just said: 'Lets listen to it' and what Merkel had to say," a government source said.

The Taoiseach's stance avoided alienating Ms Merkel -- a powerful heavy-hitter in the EU -- who insisted changes were needed to prevent a repeat of the Greek debt crisis.

Following the bailout of Greece earlier this year, EU states pledged €440bn to an emergency fund, which was set up with the International Monetary Fund.

The fund will bolster the euro in times of crisis and the EU will have extra powers of scrutiny over national budgets. But the temporary fund is due to expire in 2013, so the EU wants to make it permanent to reassure the international markets.

The Government appears confident a so-called Lisbon 3 referendum won't be needed because the revisions to existing treaties to set up the permanent bailout fund will be limited.

But Mr Cowen said if there was no transfer of powers to the EU as a result of a treaty change, then a referendum may not be necessary.

The Taoiseach said the Government couldn't properly assess whether a referendum was needed until the details of the proposal had been seen.

"It's not a case that under Irish constitutional law, in every circumstance, regardless of the content or the substance of a post-treaty change, that a referendum is required.

"That is a matter that has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. We will take our advice from the Attorney General in due course when we have a detailed proposal to consider," he said.

He refused to be drawn on whether the Government wanted to avoid a referendum.

"What determines whether we have a referendum or not is not about personal political preference. It's about what are the constitutional requirements," he added.

Following a late-night meeting, the German demand for countries to lose their voting rights if they exceeded budget deficit limits was kicked to touch.

Mr Cowen did not say the proposal was dead, but he didn't seem overly concerned.

"We're happy with those conclusions as far as they go," he said.

Environment Minister and Green Party leader John Gormley also said it was "premature" to speculate on a referendum at this stage because the required changes to the treaty could be very limited.

Irish Independent

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