Irish government faces further embarrassment

The phrase, 'may you live in interesting times' was apparently an ancient Chinese curse. A current certainty is that the Irish no vote in its referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has created interesting times for politicians. It is also a decision that has significant implications for farmers.

The rights and wrongs of the Irish decision have been well debated. Much has been said about a two speed Europe and Ireland being left behind, but in reality this is a non starter. The European Commission knows that if other countries were given the opportunity to vote many would also rejected the drive to give more power to the Commission. This may be hidden with references to greater efficiency but much in the treaty is about reducing the influence of member states. That is a particular problem for agriculture, given its dependence on the CAP. Since that policy accounts for around half of all EU spending it is inevitable it will be affected by any major changes about how decisions are made.

It was interesting that the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy (pictured), should claim a single word could be used to explain the Irish vote. That word was Mandelson - a reference to the EU's trade commissioner. Ironically this comment has probably caused the Irish Farmers Association even more problems over the referendum. It had threatened to urge farmers to vote no over the World Trade Organisation negotiations and concessions being offered on import duties, particularly for beef from South America.

When the Irish government agreed to veto any WTO deal that would be bad for Irish agriculture the IFA agreed to back the yes campaign. It claims farmers voted yes, but the Irish government still faces further embarrassment in Brussels over agriculture.

Having made itself unpopular with most other member states in Europe over the referendum this veto commitment lands the Irish government with another problem. It may soon have to make a stand against a WTO outcome that others want. Because of the approaching US presidential election it will be doing so at a time when there will be no time to negotiate further WTO concessions. This could mean that having, for now, sunk the timetable for ratification of the Lisbon treaty the Irish government could deliver a double whammy by sinking a WTO deal that has been negotiated since 2000.

This is ironic, given that Ireland has always been seen as one of the EU's most supportive member states and as one that boxes well above its weight in Brussels. In the short term its lobbying powers might be blunted by the referendum outcome. But the dust will settle, not least because the member states most critical of Ireland know their citizens would almost certainly vote they same way, if they were given the opportunity to do so.

By pointing the finger at Peter Mandelson the French president was not just suggesting he had mobilised the Irish rural and food industry vote against the treaty. What Sarkozy meant was that in the way he has conducted the WTO negotiations Mandelson embodies all the concerns that people have about ceding more power to Brussels. From the outset member states had a negotiating mandate for the WTO. This was about opening up markets to the world's poorest countries - but not those like Brazil that claimed this status despite being an agricultural superpower. Member states also agreed the a strategy for eliminating export refunds. This was all built on the Fischler 2003 CAP reforms, and was to be the limit of concessions on agriculture. Protection for sensitive products was promised, and that was the negotiating mandate Mandelson was handed.

Inevitably, given his political track record, he decided he knew better. He offered concessions beyond the mandate, believing the end would justify sacrifices by Europe's farming industry. Other commissioners and member state let him away with this, but his game now seems to have stalled. From next week France will hold the EU presidency and it will not allow a bad deal for European agriculture to emerge. Ireland is also committed to blocking Mandelson.

Instead of criticising Ireland for voting no, and even suggesting its population did not understand the issues, the Commission should accept it is Mandelson type tactics that make people resist handing more power to Brussels. That is why Sarkozy said Mandelson delivered the no vote in Ireland, and why a second referendum could well deliver the same outcome.