Analysis: EUh-oh

Dublin, and the rest of Ireland, rejects the Lisbon treaty
Dublin, and the rest of Ireland, rejects the Lisbon treaty

Thousands of column inches have been devoted to the Lisbon treaty. Hundreds of journalists have scratched their heads over its interminable reams. Now the Irish 'no' has rendered these labours meaningless. A majority of 109,964, in one of the EU's smaller states, has left it dead and buried. Is this right? Is this fair?

In Britain alone the Lisbon treaty has had huge political impact. The EU (amendments) bill, which ratifies it in Britain, is set for its third reading next week after a stormy passage through parliament. The Conservatives kicked up a fuss about whether it deserved a referendum, based on comparisons to the abandoned constitution. The Liberal Democrats lost three frontbenchers over their abstention. And in the Lords, last week, peers bitterly remembered the "Europe issue" stretching back to the 1970s and the Lib Dems' apparent betrayal of their party's position. For a series of proposals which will never now be adopted, there's been a lot of fuss.

All of that might now be irrelevant, despite the insistence of European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso that the treaty is not yet dead. Eighteen states have already approved the treaty. But under the rules of the game, unanimity has not been achieved. We may all have been wasting our time.

It is not just journalists, or British politicians, who have laboured over the treaty's pages. Europe's leading politicians invested enormous labour in winning agreement, but may not be induced to do so again. A last-minute tantrum from Poland had to be overcome in the early hours of June 23rd. Tony Blair's tired-looking face the following morning told a story all by itself. This raises a serious question. Will his predecessors be able to drag themselves from the mire for a third time?

The constitution didn't work out; now the Lisbon treaty has also failed. It may be time for another bout of agonising "navel-gazing", however horrible that thought may be to European politicians.

EU parliament vice-president Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, is no exception. He spoke to in a tone of resignation, mirroring the weariness of Mr Barroso telling the world to "assess what the result means for this process".

"We all knew that the Irish referendum might represent a democratic check. But it's the democratic dilemma," he said. You can't call on the Palestinians to hold democratic elections and then reject the result, he pointed out. That standard may not have been upheld then but it will be now.

"The business of Europe will continue unaffected," Mr McMillan-Scott continued.

"In other words, the single market, competition policy, international trade. But the political Europe of stronger central power and foreign policy ambitions is a loser - as are the national parliaments who may not now enjoy the role made out for them in the treaty."

There is always the comforting panacea of the French receiving the rotating presidency from next month. One of the leading champions of the EU, Mr Sarkozy's government will be keen to keep the ball rolling. In parliamentary terms, there may be some ways of handing some of the reforms over through other means. But ultimately, the Irish 'no' vote is not just bad news for the Lisbon Treaty. It also represents a setback for Europe's place in the wider world.

The real losers, it seems, will be those hoping the EU might begin to assert its presence more forcefully. Mr Blair's words in Brussels on that sunny morning nearly 12 months ago are a stark reminder of what might have been.

"It gives us a chance to concentrate on the issues to do with the economy, organised crime, terrorism, immigration, defence, climate change, the environment, energy, the problems that really concern the citizens of Europe," he said optimistically.

The fear now is that those issues will not be concentrated on at all.


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