Foreign Policy Blogs

"Taking stock" in Brussels

"Taking stock" in BrusselsOnly a week after the resounding Irish ‘No’, EU leaders faced the difficult task of formulating a response at a weekend summit that was slated to address the rather mundane issues of governing an almost unwieldy Union of 27.

Instead, EU heads of state and government faced yet another “crisis,” likened by some to the “abyss” created by the negative votes on the Lisbon Treaty's predecessor, the ill-fated Constitutional Treaty. After the referenda in France and the Netherlands, the Union's response was to enter a “period of reflection”. The cumbersome construction of governance, which the Nice Treaty dictates doesn't exactly allow for quick reaction, nor was it prudent at the time. The rejection of the Constitutional Treaty underlined a legitimacy problem key to the entire European project: What is it all for? Citizens in two of the Union's founding states had lost sight of the extent to which the EU benefitted their lives. Thus, leaders agreed to pare the Constitution down to its basics and focus largely on questions of governance, starting with the functioning of a 27+ – member, “ever closer Union”, not the creation of a federal super-state feared by many.

Institutional reform is a difficult platform to campaign on. My respect and admiration goes out to the Irish ‘Yes’ campaigners. Whether or not the Lisbon Reform Treaty was just not 'sexy’ enough to rally voter support, or whether it was too difficult to understand, the campaign was badly run or the ‘No’ side just had the winning arguments will be hard to determine, though analysts are already hard at work.

But what of the EU response on the weekend? Or should I say: What response? To quote the EU Council Conclusions:

“The European Council noted (emphasis added is my own) the outcome of the referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty and took stock (aha!) of the situation on the basis of an initial assessment provided by the Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

The European Council agreed that more time was needed to analyse the situation. It noted that the Irish government will actively consult, both internally and with the other Member States, in order to suggest a common way forward.”

Impressive. The Council takes note – now there's a European Union I can throw my weight behind. The European Policy Centre is far more diplomatic, when it says “In sum, the language is very cautious and no specific commitment or recommendation is made.” (The EPC also has an excellent look into the political and institutional problems ahead)

True, there is no Plan B. The Union's true response: Lisbon or bust. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguably the ‘mother’ of the Lisbon Reform Treaty negotiations and the incoming President of the European Union, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated this point at the Summit. Contrary to the 2003 crisis, most Member States (save the Czech Republic, whose situation is a little more tricky) are forging ahead with ratification. The implicit – and so far only legal alternative – goal could be to push Ireland into a second vote, once exceptions (on neutrality, an Irish Commissioner, etc.) have been negotiated.

At this point no other Member State is leaning toward untying a package so precariously wrapped up during the German EU Presidency. Negotiating exceptions to certain rules to accomodate the Irish, however, might reopen Pandora's box over time. The Czech government has its issues with the Treaty and is in the midst of an appeal to the country's Constitutional Court with respect to its compatibility. The compromise achieved with Poland was tricky. At least Italy's Berlusconi, the new-old Prime Minister is pushing ahead with ratification in his country, lest he throw a wrench in the process simply to make a political statement.

Ireland's ‘No’ will not 'shut down’ the Union – it will continue to do business and legislate as usual. However, aside from a possible wave of ‘exceptionalism’ noted above, the obvious delay of the entire ratification process does have implications for enlargement (the Nice Treaty provisions weren't conceptualized for a Union beyond 27 and Croatia would be the first to feel the effects), immigration policy (the Lisbon Treaty alters the legal basis of most legislation concerning justice and home affairs) and will likely alter the tone of the election campaign for the European Parliament in 2009.

In light of this ‘No’ the European Union as a whole cannot afford to be seen as simply 'taking stock’ and ‘noting’ current developments. Of course solutions take time to formulate, but Europe's citizens are already confused (not least the Irish – 22% of the naysayers felt they knew too little about the Treaty) about what it all means. For all the work the Commission has poured into its ‘Plan D’ to enhance the legitimacy of the Union, we now need a functional way forward. One can thus only hope that ratification continues and any exceptions are negotiated swiftly and stable, tenable results are achieved. Only if the Council is seen to be addressing the situation adequately is there truly hope for an “ever closer Union.”




Cathryn Cluver

Cathryn Cluver is a journalist and EU analyst. Now based in Hamburg, Germany, she previously worked at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Belgium, where she was Deputy Editor of the EU policy journal, Challenge Europe. Prior to that, she was a producer with CNN-International in Atlanta and London. Cathryn graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's Degree in European Studies and holds a BA with honors from Brown University in International Relations.

Areas of Focus:
Refugees; Immigration; Europe


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