Page last updated at 18:30 GMT, Friday, 13 June 2008 19:30 UK

EU mulls options after Irish No vote

By Dominic Hughes
BBC Europe reporter, Brussels

For weeks journalists have been pressing the spokesman for the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, on what would happen if the Irish voted No in a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

European Union Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso - 13/6/2008
Jose Manuel Barroso said countries should continue to ratify the treaty

But there was no answer. "There is no plan B!" we were told.

To be honest, it began to sound like a rather tired refrain. And - surprise, surprise - it turns out that in fact there are a number of possible plan Bs.

The French - who take over the presidency of the European Union in July - are suggesting a continuation of the ratification process that is currently under way across the other 26 member states.

Eighteen states have already approved the treaty and they may well resent their efforts being ruled null and void by the three million voters of Ireland.

That could mean that by the end of the year there are 26 states who have ratified, and one - Ireland - that has not.

'Ratifications continue'

Where the story goes after that I am not quite sure. But there does seem to be a common line emerging.

First up was the president of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, who said: "The No vote in Ireland has not solved the problems which the Lisbon treaty is designed to solve... The European Commission believes that the remaining ratifications should continue to take their course."

A joint statement from the French and German governments agreed: "We take note of the democratic decision of the Irish citizens with all due respect, even though we regret it."

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel went on to note that the Lisbon treaty had been ratified by 18 of the EU's 27 member states.

"We therefore hope that the other member states will continue the process of ratification."

Of course that assumes the ratification process continues in tricky countries like the Czech Republic and the UK.

The French European Affairs Minister, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, has talked of finding a "legal arrangement".

Drawing board?

But for the French this is a nightmare scenario.

The ambitious plans for their presidency - beginning work on a Mediterranean Union, addressing climate change, immigration and defence - could now be overshadowed by another long institutional wrangle.

Suffice to say this is the last thing they wanted to land in their presidency inbox.

There is another alternative - go back to the drawing board and start again.

The process dates back seven years or more, to the first plans to draw up a constitution for the European Union.

Woman walking past anti-EU treaty graffiti
Eighteen states have already approved the Lisbon treaty

That document at least had the virtue of being vaguely readable, which is more than can be said of the complicated legal clauses and cross-referencing of the Lisbon treaty.

But voters in France and the Netherlands put paid to that when they delivered their own No votes in 2005.

But once the Lisbon treaty was thrashed out in October 2007, there was a real sense that everyone wanted to put the issue of institutional reform behind them.

"It's time to focus on the issues that really matter to people!" we were told.

It is hard to imagine anyone at the commission or indeed national leaders returning to that debate with any kind of enthusiasm.

And there is always the tried and tested option of asking the Irish to have another go - just as was done when they rejected the Treaty of Nice in 2001.

A quick declaration on neutrality and, hey presto, it was approved in 2002.

But critics of this process say it already has a legitimacy problem - and asking the Irish to vote again will hardly help - besides which the Irish government has already said it does not want to go down that route.

Faced with the alternatives though, who knows? They may think again.

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