Irish PM says EU must help treaty solution


The European Union must help find a solution on how to move forward with the bloc’s reform treaty after Irish voters rejected the document, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said on Sunday.

European leaders have said they will continue to pursue ratifying the treaty despite Friday’s resounding ‘No’ vote in the only country of the bloc’s 27 to hold a referendum. Cowen, who took over as prime minister last month, said there was “no obvious solution before us. As things stand if there is no change, if there are no political developments, if we can’t come up with any solutions then obviously this treaty does not proceed,” he told public broadcaster RTE.

The treaty, which replaces an EU constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005 and designed to overhaul the bloc’s creaking institutions, is unlikely to come into force as planned on January 1 2009 after the ‘No’ vote. But its supporters in Europe are determined to rescue it. Cowen is expected to be pressed by EU counterparts at a crisis summit in Brussels next week on how he plans to tackle the setback, including whether a second vote is an option. “I want Europe to try and provide some of the solution as well as just suggesting that it is just Ireland’s problem alone,” Cowen said. “Although Ireland has a position here that we have to try and deal with.”

Cowen said he wanted to avoid a situation where Ireland was left as the only member state not having ratified the treaty. Speculation is growing over the possibility of Ireland being offered opt-outs in some areas or a protocol dealing with Irish voter concerns, such as the right of all countries to retain one EU commissioner. The Commission, the EU’s executive, will have fewer members from 2014 under current arrangements.


Cowen said “colleagues have indicated to me in fairness yes with protocols and declarations on various issues”, without giving details. Despite ranking in surveys as one of the bloc’s most pro-European states, Irish voters almost wrecked EU plans for eastward expansion in 2001 by rejecting the Nice treaty, but the government staged a second referendum in which that pact passed. Late on Friday Cowen said he was not “ruling anything in or out or up or down”, but officials in Dublin believe a second vote would be a high-risk strategy that could heap yet more humiliation on Ireland and Europe if rejected again.

Friday’s electoral returns showed the treaty, which failed by a margin of 53.4 to 46.6%, faced strong opposition from working class areas which are suspicious of Brussels and of Ireland’s political elite. Discontent has grown over the government’s handling of a faltering economy.

Cowen said he did not have an “easy job” ahead. Irish commentators questioned whether the Irish public would stomach another referendum. “This is a mess. And at a time when we as a country are experiencing economic turbulence, it is an unnecessary distraction for the politicians we elected to lead us but who we obviously don’t trust,” Ireland’s Sunday Tribune said in an editorial.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy led calls on Saturday for the EU to press on with ratifying its reform treaty, but Ireland’s ‘No’ vote revived talk of pro-European capitals forming their own club. Sarkozy said the rejection of the reform pact in Thursday’s referendum should not spark a crisis and confirmed that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had assured him he would defy British eurosceptics and pursue its endorsement. “Today, 18 European states have ratified. The others must continue to that this Irish incident does not become a crisis,” Sarkozy told a news conference with US President George W. Bush in Paris.

Others also interpreted Britain’s swift pledge on Friday to pursue ratification as a sign it would back a joint effort by France and Germany to salvage the pact, known as the Lisbon treaty, during the French Presidency of the EU later this year. But Luxembourg Prime Minister and veteran EU deal-maker Jean-Claude Juncker was more downbeat, forecasting the emergence of a two-speed Europe in which a small grouping of EU states would develop joint policy initiatives by themselves. “Given that it is increasingly hard to get all states moving together, probably the only thing left is a ‘Club of the Few’,” said Juncker, a contender for the powerful EU president post foreseen by the treaty.

France’s Le Monde newspaper called for the launch of an “avant-garde” of nations ready to agree policy by majority voting rather than by unanimity, while Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung predicted a “Europe of varying intensities”. “Time has shown that the majority of EU states follow when a small group seizes the initiative,” it wrote. Any bid to salvage the project would be in sharp contrast to 2005, when ‘No’ votes in founder EU members France and the Netherlands sounded the death knell for the planned EU constitution which the new treaty was drafted to replace. “This time the scenario is radically different,” said Belgium’s Le Soir. “The idea is to completely isolate Ireland.”


Commentators fretted over the damage done to the EU’s image abroad by the resounding 53.4% vote against a treaty aimed at streamlining decision-making in the enlarged 27-member bloc and strengthening its voice on the world stage. Many argued the referendum was not against the treaty itself -- an opaque text few profess to have read -- but was hijacked by domestic issues and a popular dissatisfaction throughout the bloc with an EU widely regarded as elitist and bureaucratic.

France’s Le Figaro suggested that the Irish be called to vote again on a tweaked text and that Paris, Berlin and should London work together to get EU reform back on track.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who must now present ideas on the way forward to an EU summit next week, said late on Friday he was not “ruling anything in or out or up or down” but officials in Dublin do not relish the prospect of a new vote.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters during a trip to China the onus was now on Ireland to “clear the way” for the bloc’s other 26 members to continue developing joint EU policies, without elaborating.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou also suggested one option was working out “special arrangements” for Ireland while the other 26 states moved ahead with ratification.
But Greece’s To Vima newspaper said the fate of the treaty lay in the hands of countries with strong Eurosceptic currents, such as Britain and the Czech Republic, whose president insisted on Friday that ratification moves must be frozen. Speculation was rife about the way ahead.
Scenarios listed by Britain’s Guardian newspaper ranged from the rise of a two-speed Europe and the improbable outcome that Ireland be told to leave the EU -- what it called the “Stuff the Irish” solution. But it sighed: “What happens now is as clear as peat soil.” (Reuters)

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