Divided Union

Written by Nadine Kreisberger | Updated: Jul 1 2008, 03:35am hrs
The European Union is back at the intensive care unit. This is how many feel after Ireland rejected its latest treaty by referendum by a resounding 53.4% No.

The Lisbon Treaty is a painstakingly negotiated plan to consolidate EUs power and streamline its sprawling bureaucracy. To take effect, it must be ratified by all of its 27 members. So the defeat in a single country, even if it represents less than 1% of its 500 million people, can have massive repercussions, threatening to bring the whole process to a halt.

Following the disastrous French and Dutch referendums in 2005 that had virtually stalled EUs reform, 26 countries had decided to refer the ratification process to theirexpectedly more compliant-parliaments. Only Ireland could not do so, as it is constitutionally bound to hold a referendum on any treaty amending its constitution.

The reasons for the no abound and are often contradictory. The entire Irish establishment, including the major political parties and most business groups had called for a positive vote. But even though Ireland was virtually kick-started by Europe pouring billions in its economy in the late 1980s, campaigners for a no efficiently mobilised. They capitalised on voters disillusionment with the government, their confusion about a complex treaty and their feeling of alienation from Brussels, which is the source of 85% of all new laws passed in Europe every year.

So now what The first priority, especially for Nicholas Sarkozy who was a crucial architect of the Treaty and whose country is to head the EU as of July 1, is to make sure Ireland remains an exception and all other countries ratify the treaty. Eighteen have already done so, but some like the Czech Republic are dithering. Second, a solution must be found to save the Treaty, with or without Ireland.

The Lisbon text is meant to strengthen EUs influence in world affairs and improve its internal functioning, which has become notoriously cumbersome and inadequate, particularly after the addition of 12 new members since 2004. It would create a new full-time President and a more powerful foreign policy chief to speak for Europe around the world. It would improve the European Commissions efficiency (the executive body), boost the powers of the European Parliament, and change voting procedures (so that fewer decisions require majority votes).

So, despite last weeks possible fatal setback, European leaders are putting on a brave face and circulating ideas to save the Treaty. One option would be to amend it, giving Ireland some reassurances before it holds a second referendum. But that would involve another round of painstaking negotiations that could linger dangerously, something that all are desperate to avoid. Another solution would be to evolve a special status for Ireland, which would still be part of Europe, but in a different category.

No matter what, the Treatys implementation will be postponed. And Europe must face the fundamental fact that as important as the Union is in their daily lives, many ordinary Europeans feel alienated from it and confused by its work. They see Brussels as remote and undemocratic. Given a chancesuch as last week in Ireland or three years ago in France and the Netherlands they loudly speak out their fears and rejection.

Yet, the Union has been a successful democratic and economic anchor for its members and beyond. It is a model for other regional unions such as in Latin America. Countries such as Croatia are knocking at EUs door. And the Lisbon Treatys objective is precisely meant to make expanded Europe more efficient and democratic. So despite their failure at convincing Europes citizens of the benefits of it all, European leaders have no choice: they must find a way out of the ICU.

The author is a French columnist. Email: thirdeyelas@yahoo.com