Confusion in the EU: Europe's Difficult Way Forward after the Irish 'No'

At first, many urged that the Lisbon Treaty ratification process be carried on as planned. After a weekend of head-scratching, though, many seem to be throwing up their hands in dismay.

What happens next for the European Union? That is the question facing political leaders across the continent this week after Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum last Thursday. And after a weekend of hand-wringing and head-scratching among Europe's leaders, the continent doesn't look to be any closer to an answer.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso isn't the only one scratching his head these days.
REUTERS

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso isn't the only one scratching his head these days.

EU foreign ministers are in Slovenia on Monday for a previously planned meeting ahead of the EU summit for heads of state and government later this week. Suddenly, though, there is but a single item on the agenda -- what the Irish "no" means for Europe. Many are urging caution.

"It would be risky to say we are going to bring the treaty back to life when we are facing a blockade," said Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel of Slovenia, which is hosting the EU summit, on Monday.

The target of his comments seemed clear. Following the vote, the first reflex for many was to urge that ratification of the Lisbon Treaty continue. The treaty -- which seeks to streamline the way Europe makes decisions, trim down the European Commission, beef up the EU's role in foreign affairs and hand the European Parliament more decision-making powers --- had been ratified by 18 of the EU's 27 member countries prior to last Thursday's referendum in Ireland. But 53.4 percent of the Irish voted "no" to the treaty, which must be adopted unanimously by all members in order to go into effect.

"Eighteen European states have ratified," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday. "The others must continue to ratify so that this Irish incident does not become a crisis."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown likewise said on Friday that he would continue the ratification process in the UK, raising hopes that the Irish "no" would not completely derail the treaty. Germany too seemed initially to be in favor of isolating Ireland, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on a visit to China this weekend, saying "(The question is whether) Ireland for a certain time can clear the way for an integration of the remaining 26 (member countries)."

Still, the vagueness of Steinmeier's comment is indicative of a Europe that is unsure whether moving forward with the ratification process is a possibility at all. Immediately after the results of the Irish vote became clear on Friday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus said the Lisbon Treaty was "dead." His country is one of the nine yet to ratify the treaty, and the country's parliament is notoriously skeptical of the EU. Should the Czech Republic add its "nay" to that of Ireland, European leaders fear the EU would be headed for the kind of crisis it experienced in 2005 when the precursor to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Constitution, was torpedoed by voters in France and the Netherlands.

Following that defeat, the EU stagnated for two years until German Chancellor Angela Merkel helped breathe life into the Lisbon Treaty. Now, many are urging the EU to move slowly in drawing conclusions from this most recent defeat. "The people's decision has to be respected and we have to chart a way through," said Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin on Monday. "It is far too early for proffering any solutions or proposals. There are no quick-fix solutions."

Nevertheless, a number of different ideas for the future of Europe have already been floated. In 2001, Ireland rejected the Treaty of Nice -- the agreement the Lisbon Treaty is meant to reform -- in a similar referendum. Europe was able to finagle a revote after the text was slightly altered. Some have suggested that a similar strategy could be used this time around. Few were willing to rule out such a possibility over the weekend, but most were quick to point out the risks inherent in such a strategy.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who had made passing the referendum a priority of his young administration, said "I'm not ruling anything in or out or up or down."

Elsewhere, calls for a "two-speed" Europe have once again become audible. Many in Germany, France and other long-time EU members have argued that, if not everyone is willing to fully integrate, then those who would like to should move ahead. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said on German radio on Saturday that it was time for a "Club of the Few." Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer likewise wrote in an editorial for Die Zeit that "those who want political integration should move forward and those who are happy with just a common market should be left behind."

That, though, is an idea that not everyone is happy with. Speaking on BBC radio on Sunday, British Foreign Minister David Miliband said that a two-speed Europe might have been a good idea in 1990. But, he said, it is not one that fits with 21st century realities.

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