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Page last updated at 08:59 GMT, Saturday, 14 June 2008 09:59 UK

EU at crossroads after Irish vote

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Dublin

Supporters of the "No Vote" celebrate after the Lisbon Treaty was rejected at the Royal Dublin Society
"No" campaigners presented an array of objections to the treaty
Where next? Irresistible force - the referendum - has met immoveable object - the need for every EU member state to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. So where next?

Within minutes of the result of the referendum becoming known, some of the wonkiest minds in Europe were speculating as to how the European Union could dig itself out of the Ireland-shaped hole that it had fallen into.

Some options are too horrible to contemplate; the idea of reopening the treaty for wholesale renegotiation is one. Seven long years of institutional navel gazing have already been spent creating the incomprehensible mess that is the Lisbon Treaty.

There is no appetite whatsoever among diplomats and officials to start the whole thing again.

For the same reason the option of just scrapping the treaty and carrying on as before is medicine that is probably too ghastly to swallow voluntarily.

Even if several studies have shown that the Union of 27 member states functions pretty well with the institutional structure designed for 15, there are serious players that want the changes laid out in the Treaty and will not give them up without a fight at the say-so of fewer than a million stroppy Irish voters.

That's why, in among the expressions of regret over and respect for the result, Europe's leaders also called for ratification in other EU countries to go ahead. They want to leave open the door that the Irish have tried to slam shut.

'Whisky and a revolver'

Sceptics may cry foul; but Ireland did not vote on behalf of Europe's voiceless masses, it voted on behalf of Ireland.

Irish voters give their reasons for voting No or Yes for the Lisbon treaty

So one theory doing the rounds is that the 26 other EU countries might move ahead with the Lisbon Treaty without Ireland.

It's a neat idea. But it is difficult to see how it works, unless it means giving the Irish the EU equivalent of a glass of whisky and a revolver and asking it to do the decent thing.

No, the real reason that countries such as the UK are being urged to continue with the ratification process is because lurking at the back of everybody's mind is the thought that, once all the other countries have ratified, Ireland might be asked to vote again, and come up with the right answer this time.

The Irish prime minister left this option on the table when he spoke on Friday evening immediately after the official result was announced.

"It is our duty now to reflect on the implications of this vote for Ireland so that we can move forward and keep this country on the path of progress," he said.

Array of objections

There is precedent for this; Ireland voted "No" in 2001 to the Nice Treaty; in the months that followed, with a protocol here and an annex there, it was presented with a treaty that allegedly added protection for Ireland's neutral status.

At the end of the day, for a myriad of reasons, the people have spoken
Dermot Ahern, Justice Minister

A second vote was held in 2002 and Nice was duly passed.

The list of reasons why this might not work this time around is very long.

Most analysts point to the low turnout in 2001 as the reason for the Nice Treaty's defeat. In the 2002 vote, Ireland's "natural Yes" voters were persuaded to come and vote.

But in 2008 the picture is very different. The "No" vote has grown; turnout last week was a whopping 53% - higher than that of the second Nice referendum.

In 2001 there appeared to be one unifying reason (beyond low turnout) for the "No" vote - concern over Ireland's neutral status.

But anyone who spent time with voters during this campaign was presented with a bewildering array of objections to the treaty.

Among them: abortion, neutrality, tax sovereignty, military conscription, the loss of an Irish commissioner, the deregulation of the taxi trade and, of course, the desire to give the government of the day - not to mention the ubiquitous "Eurocrats" - a good kicking.

Amending the Lisbon Treaty to encompass those objections would challenge even the mightiest Euro-minds.

Then there's the question of political timing. Getting people to vote again is a good trick. But there's a limit to how many times you can pull it. Irish voters may have other things on their mind than the re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers.

They are not dumb, and they may get more than a little irritated at being asked to vote over and over again until they come up with the right answer.

And as the Irish economy hits a particularly rocky patch, who is to say that Ireland's voters are going to be in a better mood in six months time, if they are asked to vote again?

On the Monday before the vote Brian Cowen was asked whether the treaty was dead if Ireland voted against it. "Obviously", came back his reply.

Come late Friday he'd changed his mind.

But given the range of deeply unpalatable alternatives, maybe, just maybe, he was right first time around.




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