Could we get our referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after all? After nine bad-tempered years in the making – and the many contortions of the major political parties to avoid any chance of a referendum, there is again a real prospect of the Treaty being subjected to a popular vote.
And it is not the work of the British Conservatives that has re-opened the debate - but the Germans.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is determined to make changes to the Lisbon Treaty to factor in a permanent mechanism that would bail out Eurozone countries in trouble - even if it means galvanising the anti-Lisbon lobby into one last push for a referendum.
It’s still not clear whether adding a permanent mechanism to the Treaty would require ratification from each of the 27 Member States. The Commission is hoping that it can be adopted by a “simplified” procedure (invoking Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty). This procedure allows for the adoption of minor surgical changes.
It is not an option, either, to go ahead with a bailout mechanism without any treaty change at all. Germany has insisted that any bailout mechanism be enshrined into the Treaty - otherwise it would be contested by Germany’s Constitutional Court.
A report from the think tank Bruegel published this week (9 November) says that any mechanism for financial stability will require a broad revision of the EU treaties.
It was at Deauville, before the October Council where Merkel persuaded the French President Nicolas Sarkozy to support her plans for establishing a permanent fund after Germany was exposed to a hefty 100 billion Euros contribution to the Greek bailout.
A permanent rescue mechanism would be activated in a possible future Greece-type scenario, where “the stability of the euro as a whole is under threat”.
Notwithstanding any prospects of Treaty referendums, the whole initiative is at risk from the markets which have so far reacted negatively.
Bond-holders are being asked to bear a greater risk and cost in case of a bailout in order to protect the taxpayer. This in turn would, as the President of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet fears, drive up borrowing costs for the most indebted countries. Ireland is at risk of going the way of Greece after news this week that its borrowing costs are being ramped up. Nevertheless, Merkel is adamant that the risk does not fall on the taxpayer.
Frau Merkel also wants to introduce tougher sanctions to deter more feckless members of the Eurozone from running large deficits in the first place. This would either be a loss of voting rights or of EU funding.
This did not go down well in Bulgaria the EU’s poorest country. Prime Minsiter Borissov said; "I would support [the proposals], but let's first discuss the mechanism. Imagine that you have a 3.5% or 4% deficit, and the sanctions include freezing of EU funding. The country would not solve its deficit problem: it would sink even deeper"
The new rules would the UK which has opted out of the EU, but the UK would nevertheless support Germany’s attempts to bring greater rigour to Eurozone deficit control.
The next Head of State summit will take place on December 16-17 where it is expected there will be some form of agreement on the whether the Treaty needs to be changed and whether it would need to be ratified again. The Commission on the other hand will deliver its own proposals on new EU budget rules amending the Eurozone’s original Stability and Growth Pact in December.
Berlin believes that all 27 member states, including the UK – and not just the Eurozone countries should be subjected to the new budget deficit regime to give the single market as a whole the stability it needs. Paris, on the other-hand is reluctant for the Eurozone countries to take decisions that would affect all 27 member states.
The bail-out debate has opened a whole pandora’s box of contentious issues and the EU will have to tread carefully if it is to avoid creating a split in the Eurozone between the deficit sinners and the deficit saints. And it is the cohesion of the whole of the European Union – and not just the Eurozone – that is at stake. If the bailout mechanism does trigger a treaty change and even a referendum, the Euro-sceptics will have their chance to strike.