There will doubtless be a wailing and gnashing of teeth at the European Union summit in Brussels next week, when EU leaders gather to decide what to do about Ireland’s No vote to the Lisbon treaty. There are no easy answers. First the French, then the Dutch and now the Irish have rejected much the same package of institutional reforms that were supposed to make an enlarged EU more effective and more democratic.
All three countries are fundamentally pro-European. But in referendums, their voters remain unpersuaded that complex changes in institutional architecture are worth adopting. Their attitude suggests a worrying gulf between EU decision-makers and popular feeling that needs a new sort of response.
Of course referendums are a bad way of deciding vast packages of reforms. It is much easier to say No to individual items, much harder to argue for a blanket Yes. That is precisely why the No side won in Ireland. But the vote is a political reality, and EU leaders must respond.
In the first place, it would be foolish for any of them to rush out and declare the treaty dead before they meet next week – as Jack Straw, then UK foreign minister, did with such glee after the French referendum. This is a collective undertaking that requires a collective response. It is up to Brian Cowen, the Irish prime minister, to report his defeat to his colleagues, and suggest what can be done. They should then agree a common action.
No doubt there will be some who insist that all 26 carry on with ratification – 18 have already completed the process – to put maximum pressure on the Irish. But what then? Mr Cowen has argued all along that he cannot go back to his electorate and ask for a second vote on the basis of a couple of footnotes. The No vote was based on a ragbag of reasons to which there is no obvious response. The turnout was respectable. So a second Irish referendum would probably be doomed to failure.
It would be more sensible to put the Lisbon treaty on ice for several years, and try to rescue those parts that are important, uncontentious, and capable of being carried out without treaty amendment. That does not include creating a semi-permanent president of the European Council, but it does mean beefing up an EU diplomatic service, and giving more resources to the EU high representative for foreign affairs.
Europe does not need to turn the drama of the Irish No vote into a fully-fledged crisis of confidence. Everyone is fed up with negotiating new treaties. The priority should be to make the EU work better with practical policies – on energy security and climate change, for a start – with its present rules and 27 member states. The Nice treaty is not ideal, but losing Lisbon should not be seen as the end of the world.
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