Two-tier Europe or back to square one?

EUROPE’S foreign ministers will discuss the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty when they meet in Luxembourg today as some countries suggest the union should move ahead without Ireland.

Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin will give them a brief outline of the situation but will not say how Ireland intends to proceed. This will be left to Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.

So far there is no consensus among EU leaders on what should happen next other than that the remaining eight member states that have yet to ratify the treaty should proceed to do so.

But there appears to be no appetite for the demands by the anti-treaty groups in Ireland to renegotiate the document, with ministers saying it was a compromise carefully worked out with each member state.

The Taoiseach is expected to ask for time to reflect and consider the country’s options and report back before the December deadline for the treaty to be accepted or rejected.

The indications are that his fellow prime ministers will give him this time, though nobody expects that the crisis will be resolved by then.

The EU will have to decide whether to kill off the treaty and find another way to introduce changes or operate a two-speed Europe with the countries that ratify the treaty moving ahead on the basis of Lisbon and leaving the others to operate as they do now under the Nice treaty.

Politicians in some countries have already come out in favour of the latter idea, including Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Reacting to the Irish vote he said: “It is now to be hoped that

Ireland will clear the way for a while for the process of continued integration of the 26 other states.”

Fellow German minister, Wolfgang Schaüble, was also willing to sideline Ireland.

“Of course we have to take the Irish referendum seriously. But a few million Irish cannot decide on behalf of 495 million Europeans,” he said.

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker expressed similar views over the weekend when he said those countries that favoured greater cooperation at EU level could form their own “Club of the Few” to move ahead.

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottring said the ratifications in the other member states must be respected just as much as the Irish vote.

“I hope that it will be possible to find a solution so that reforms can come into force by the time of the European elections in June 2009,” he said.

Some others expect Ireland to ask for further opt-outs from the treaty — such as from the EU’s peacekeeping defence operations, or adding in a protocol such as the one on neutrality appended before the second Nice vote.

But any deal on commissioners appears to be firmly ruled out. Under Lisbon a third of member states would lose their commissioner for one term in three in rotation from 2014, but under Nice, which still applies, the commission will be reduced from next June.

Europe Minister Dick Roche said that while

Lisbon ensured equal treatment for all member states, Nice offered no promise of equality. He pointed out that the Irish were heavily involved in negotiating away the original French idea of an inner core of commissioners from the five big states.

The immediate concern of EU leaders will be how to introduce some of the changes seen as essential to more efficient running of the union, such as dropping the veto when agreeing legislation in some areas and instead having ministers decide by majority, together with giving the European Parliament an equal say.

This change, and changes to the size of the commission, could be made in the accession treaty with Croatia next year in advance of it becoming the 28th member of the union.

Schaüble, responsible for internal affairs, said something must be done to make people feel more involved in the union, such as an EU-wide vote to directly elect the President of the Commission.

However France’s Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, said she was absolutely certain there would be another Lisbon or some other agreement to introduce the necessary reforms to the union.

She appeared to rule out any attempt at a two-speed Europe saying: “We

Europeans believe that it is either all of us or none of us.”

French President Nicholas Sarkozy will have a major role to play in deciding the next step as he takes over the presidency of the union on July 1. He has already been in contact with the Taoiseach to say he believes the other countries should continue to ratify the treaty, saying that no country had the right to sabotage the European project.

He described the Irish vote as “an appeal [to the union] to do more, to do it better”.

But British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is under intense pressure to call off ratification ahead of the treaty being discussed by the House of Lords.

It has been ratified by the Westminster Parliament but the Irish vote has given fresh impetus to the demands to suspend ratification and hold a referendum.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair had promised one on the constitution before it was abandoned following rejection by French and Dutch voters.


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