EU Starts to Pick Up Pieces After Irish "No"

European Union foreign ministers start picking up the pieces on Monday after Ireland's "No" to an EU reform treaty cast doubt on whether measures meant to improve the enlarged bloc's working will ever take effect.


The ministers are due to discuss upgrading ties with Israel, hear a report on the latest diplomatic drive over Iran's nuclear program and review a troubled police mission in Kosovo, but the treaty setback seems bound to dominate the monthly meeting.

EU leaders will want to hear from Prime Minister Brian Cowen at a summit in Brussels later this week whether he sees any hope of winning a new referendum, perhaps after receiving special assurances on key Irish concerns.

For the moment, Dublin's 26 partners in the bloc are not taking "No" for an answer.

All other member countries have agreed to press ahead with parliamentary ratification of the Lisbon treaty, designed to give the EU stronger leadership, a more effective foreign and defense policy and a more democratic decision-making system.

EU officials say the hope is that if all other countries back the treaty by December, the Irish can be persuaded to try again in exchange for assurances on issues such as preserving a member of the European Commission for each member country and retaining national vetoes over tax legislation indefinitely.

Cowen said Dublin's EU partners must help otherwise the treaty cannot come into force, depriving the bloc of a long-term president and a stronger foreign policy chief with a real diplomatic service.

"I want Europe to try and provide some of the solution as well as just suggesting that it is just Ireland's problem alone," Cowen told public broadcaster RTE on Sunday.

Possible Alternative

A senior EU official said if Cowen tells EU leaders he cannot win a new referendum, the alternative could be to put limited reforms into the accession treaty of the next candidate to join the bloc, likely to be Croatia in 2010 or 2011.

That might modify the voting system and the distribution of European parliament seats and possibly change foreign policy provisions, but it could not include the whole range of reforms defeated in last Thursday's Irish vote.

Meanwhile, a potentially damaging "who lost Ireland" threatens to erupt after French ministers accused the executive European Commission of insensitivity to fishermen, truckers and cattle breeders hit by soaring fuel and food prices.

French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said on Europe 1 radio that Brussels should have been more responsive to their distress rather than rejecting out of hand President Nicolas Sarkozy's call to use extra tax receipts on petrol to cushion the cost to the worst affected sectors.

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso appealed on Friday for there to be no hunt for a scapegoat in what some saw as a pre-emptive strike against such criticism from France, which takes on the rotating EU presidency in two weeks' time.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker appears to be the lone voice so far calling for a small group of committed countries to move ahead together with closer European integration.

Germany and France, the EU's traditional leadership duo, seem keen to keep the whole bloc together and put the onus on Ireland to find a solution, rather than looking to the kind of "core Europe" solution advocated by Juncker.