It would be difficult to argue that Chancellor Angela Merkel was focused entirely on European Union business on Thursday night in Brussels. While she was meeting with the 26 other EU leaders, beginning the process of finding a way out of the dead-end created by the Irish "no" to the Lisbon Treaty, the German national football team was battling it out with the Portuguese in an important knock-out match in Basel.
Merkel was able to attend Germany's last match against Austria, even greeting team trainer Joachim Löw as he made his way into the stands after being thrown out of the game by the referee. This time though, watching the match was out of the question. She did manage to see Germany's first goal on television while enjoying an aperitif. She was informed of the second goal by the waitstaff -- the TV had been moved out of sight so Europe's leaders could concentrate on their working dinner. Under the table, though, the text messages were flying.
Finally, with six minutes left in the game, Merkel could stand it no longer and snuck out of the banquet hall -- just in time to see Portugal's late goal to make it 3-2 for Germany. She sweated through the four minutes of extra time, she said, and then granted herself an extra few minutes to watch the team celebrating on the field -- before returning to the table and the Ireland question.
There are, of course, good reasons why Merkel spoke at length about the match during her midnight press conference. It shows her as a chancellor of the people. On the other hand, the comparison is tempting: Prior to the match, few thought that Germany would be able to survive the favorites from Portugal. Merkel hopes that the Lisbon Treaty will experience a similar revival.
The Lisbon Treaty -- which sought to streamline EU decision-making and grant more power to the European Parliament -- is on everyone's lips at the European Union summit this week, despite Ireland having rejected the document in a referendum last week. The situation, many are saying, is fundamentally different that it was in 2005 after the Netherlands and France rejected the European Constitution, the predecessor to the Lisbon Treaty. Back then, the failure of the two referenda resulted in an immediate halt to the ratification process -- and to the death of the European Constitution.
This time around there were again voices calling for the Lisbon Treaty to be dumped as soon as possible. "Just bury it," was the Economist's somewhat blunt recommendation. But this time it was, of all people, the euro-skeptic Brits who gave the signal to carry on. The House of Lords ratified the Lisbon Treaty on Wednesday, and the Queen signed it on Thursday, making the UK the 19th EU member state to ratify the pact.
In the German Chancellery, this is being seen as a "significant push forward." The remaining seven EU members states are also expected to ratify the treaty by the end of the year. In some cases, ratification is a long and tedious process: In the Czech Republic, for example, the government is waiting for the country's constitutional court to rule on the treaty's constitutionality.
The hope is that the pressure on Ireland will increase with every additional state that ratifies the treaty. At the same time, however, supporters of the treaty, wary of provoking a defiant response, are avoiding launching any more verbal attacks against Ireland. After the initial harsh reaction to the Irish "no," which went as far as calls for Ireland to be expelled from the bloc, the debate has taken a different, more conciliatory tone. It is important to "proceed with caution," emphasized the President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering. "We need unanimity," Merkel said on Thursday morning in her speech before parliament in Berlin.
Nevertheless, the calls for harmony did not stop several players in Brussels from raising the pressure on Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Lisbon Treaty had to come into force before European elections in 2009. That would mean that the Irish would have to vote again by the beginning of next year at the latest, probably on a watered-down version of the treaty complete with special clauses added to appease the Irish voters.
The German government too makes no secret of the fact that it considers the Lisbon Treaty indispensable for the future of the EU. If the rest of Europe doesn't want to expel Ireland from the union, then the only plausible solution involves a second referendum. However the Czech Republic and Sweden want to avoid having that kind of message come out of the EU summit -- they fear unnecessarily provoking their already skeptical populations ahead of their upcoming ratifications of the treaty.
These divergent views help explain why the dinner attended by the 27 leaders lasted much longer than planned. The Irish prime minister presented his much anticipated analysis of the situation. Afterwards the leaders were not much wiser. The reasons for the Irish "no" are too complex for the EU to be able to provide remedies for them all. As expected, Cowen did not come up with any suggestions for solving the problem. And the Irish foreign minister said that it was unlikely one would be found before the EU summit in October. "The idea would be ... for our Irish friends to report to the European Council in October on the evolution of the situation to set a definitive strategy," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said. No timetable was set.
The European Council will likely ask Ireland to present a wish list at one of the next EU summits in October or December. Merkel warned, however, against any kind of "horse trading." The essential parts of the Lisbon Treaty are non-negotiable.
Sarkozy, for his part, made it clear that as long as the reform treaty has not come into force, any further expansion of the EU would be unthinkable: "Without the Lisbon Treaty, there won't be any enlargement." When asked if that includes Croatia, which is well on the way to membership, Sarkozy said: "You can't say 'no' to reforms and 'yes' to enlargement It's nothing against Croatia."
This increases the pressure on those states still wavering, such as the Czech Republic, which has been a champion of the accession of further Eastern European states but which is hesitating about ratifying the Lisbon Treaty. On Friday morning Merkel also held serious talks with her Czech counterpart, Mirek Topolanek.
Meanwhile, France hinted at the first consequences of the Irish vote. Finance Minister Christine Lagarde told the Financial Times that France could no longer push its tax-coordination plan as a centerpiece of the French EU presidency in the second half of 2008. Ireland's "no" was motivated, among other things, by a fear of a more uniform tax policy within the EU.
Sarkozy also renewed his call for EU nations to cap or cut the value-added tax on oil, as a form of relief for consumers facing starkly higher food and energy prices. He envisions such a move as a sign of the EU's capacity for action. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after Thursday evening's session that he'd sensed a shift in opinion. He suggested the heads of government seemed more open to the idea than their finance ministers.
Which may not mean much, since EU finance ministers roundly rejected Sarkozy's plan last spring. Many government leaders also expressed skepticism at the idea of state intervention in oil pricing -- which is the reason the EU Commission only agreed to study the measure.
The mood, at any rate, is less defeated than at the EU crisis summit three years ago. Government leaders have learned from experience and want to avoid another period of self-paralysis. Sources within the Commission said confidently that the Irish government has made one thing clear: "We need a little time, but we don't want out of Europe."