New challenges for European Union's next presidency after the defeat in Ireland
PARIS: The European Union, it seems, just will not take no for an answer.
European leaders meet on Thursday in Brussels for summit talks that were intended to focus on the next six months. Now they will spend their time analyzing last week's Irish debacle and deciding what, if anything, they can do about it.
The Irish refusal last week to support a new organizational treaty for the 27-member European Union has thrown the bloc into confusion, shocked its bureaucratic elite and done significant damage to France's plans for its six-month presidency, which begins in less than two weeks.
The solid Irish "no" is another sign of the distance many Europeans feel from their bureaucratic European institutions, which operate with little real democratic oversight. But European leaders are mostly trying to figure out how to maneuver around the Irish rejection of what is known as the Lisbon Treaty, or somehow to overturn it.
No one wants to declare the treaty dead, since there is no alternative. Another Irish vote is almost inevitable, but it is very risky and could not take place for many months. And no one is sure how to prevent the Irish rejection from spreading to other skeptical countries, like the Czech Republic and Poland, whose presidents oppose the treaty.
In the meantime, the Irish "no" will have other ripple effects, including a deadening impact on France's presidency.
For President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings in France's opinion polls remain low, the French presidency of the European Union is considered an important opportunity to show his seriousness, resolve and capacity to a skeptical French public. But now, with the Irish "no," the French presidency will be haunted by the need to revisit old debates, rather than concentrate on new initiatives.
Jean-Pierre Jouyet, the French minister for European Affairs, said that the best response to the Irish vote was "to take on board the preoccupations just expressed." Europe must be made to work better for its citizens, "with concrete programs that provide concrete results for individuals," he said in an interview.
"Europe won't stop because of June 13," he added, a little plaintively, speaking of French plans to improve the union's policies on immigration and political asylum, to cut taxes on gasoline and diesel, to accelerate the move toward a credible European defense force and to create a new Union of the Mediterranean, intended to link countries like Israel, Egypt, Syria and Turkey into regional projects.
France also wants to negotiate new agreements on the environment and agriculture. But with institutional reform blocked, progress will be more difficult ? in part to ensure that the Irish, if they vote again, will not find new reasons to vote no.
Negotiation, of course, can proceed. But without the Lisbon Treaty, implementation is going to be much more difficult.
In a news conference, Sarkozy himself shrugged and said, "If you like easy jobs, you should resign right away." He talked of the "duty to be more effective and look at what the daily lives of our fellow citizens look like," and to use Europe to bring positive changes to people, like cheaper roaming rates for cellphones.
A senior French official, acknowledging that it would be difficult for Ireland to vote again anytime soon and almost inconceivable to start again and rewrite the treaty, said simply, "The French presidency is essentially dead."
So far the French line, in coordination with Germany, has been that the rest of the members should continue to ratify the treaty, which was supposed to go into effect Jan. 1. So far, 19 countries have approved it, all by legislative votes. Only Ireland used a referendum, and only because the Irish Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution demanded it, even on a complicated treaty that few experts claimed to understand fully.
The European Union's efforts at institutional reform have been stalled before by referendums, including by the Irish, who blocked the Nice Treaty in 2001, got some concessions, and voted yes in 2002. In 2005, the French and Dutch blocked a so-called European constitution. The revised effort was the Lisbon Treaty.
While Sarkozy and Jouyet hope that ratification by all remaining countries will isolate the Irish and lead to another referendum, there is little more that the European Union can promise them. There can be new assurances about the union's respect for Ireland's neutrality and traditions, like burning peat. But more than 50 percent of Irish voters turned out for the referendum, and 53.4 percent of them voted against the treaty, which will not be rewritten. So a reversal is not guaranteed.
In the meantime, without Lisbon and its removal of national vetoes on all policies, it will be very hard to make an enlarged Europe function more efficiently.