Until recently, the Treaty of Lisbon, which substituted for the unsuccessful European Constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005, was moving along toward becoming reality. And then, it blew up in the ballot boxes of Ireland. The proposal, which would have constructed a strong and united Europe, was rejected in June by Ireland, the only one of the 27 EU member-states that left the ratification process in the hands of its citizens. Although 46.6% of Irish voters said yes, 53.4% of voters rejected the proposal. In all, 53% of the Irish population went to the poll booth. Once more, Irish voters’ reluctance stands in the way of reforming European institutions. What will happen next?

If the long-awaited Treaty of Lisbon is to win out, every EU member state will have to ratify it, but there is the risk that other member-states will be infected by Ireland’s decision. Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, has already said that the Treaty of Lisbon “is finished” because it is impossible “to continue with the ratification process.” Brian Cowen, who heads the Irish government, has said that the voting results introduce “great uncertainty,” and that this is a “complex situation that has no easy resolution.”

Irish voters specifically objected to provisions of the treaty that they feared would strip smaller members of the right to make their own laws and decide their own futures. In the anti-treaty rhetoric preceding the vote, there was also a tone of distrust of European Union officials.

The new Treaty was supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2009. “It is not the first time that Ireland has been reluctant to advance the process of institutional change in the EU. It also voted against the Treaty of Nice (in 2001, but then wound up signing it the following year),” says Agustí Ulied, professor of European economics at the ESADE business school in Spain. According to Ulied, there are two factors: “One is its insularity; neither Great Britain nor Ireland is firmly connected to the continent, and they go their own way.” Another reason is that the Irish have always wanted to maintain some peculiar aspects of the unsuccessful European Constitution. “Above all, they fear that integration goes against their tradition,” including their current fiscal policy, Ulied says. José Maria de Areilza, professor at the IE law school, agrees. “There were a lot of factors but many of them are irrational, such as how taxes could be raised,” he says.

The votes of a mere 1.5 million Irish citizens have effectively blocked the votes cast by 490 million Europeans. Ignacio Molina, who conducts research on European affairs at the Elcano Royal Institute in Spain, says that the Irish are misinformed; they think “only about the interests of Ireland.” They have rejected the Treaty, he says, because they are annoyed at their own government [due to its] corruption and so forth.” They also fear that the tide of globalization will force all EU member states to harmonize their policies on such issues as taxation, abortion and homosexual marriage. These kinds of issues are more rhetorical than real, according to Molina, who notes that Ireland’s rural areas gave the most resounding ‘no’ to the Treaty. “Ireland has benefited a great deal from European farm policy, and the fear of losing these benefits led to this reaction,” Molina says.

Ulied suggests that the Irish are “more conservative (than the rest of Europe)” so they have responded by voting ‘no.’ “Everyone is afraid of change,” he explains. In Europe as a whole, farm workers are the most reluctant to change. “The same thing happens in Ireland. Rural areas are much more conservative. Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the EU to the position where it boasts the second-highest per capita income in the euro zone …. Change leads to fear.”

Looking at the Options

It is still too early to predict which direction the EU will move toward. Dublin does not know what to propose next. “They are asking for time,” says De Areilza. In practical terms, the Treaty of Nice is the basic law of the EU, and there are significant problems when it comes to managing its performance. It’s predictable that this will lead to a new political crisis – as occurred after the rejection of the European Constitution.

The highest circles of EU leadership are responsible for analyzing the consequences of the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon and for establishing a new approach to the game. José Manuel Durao Barroso, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has asked the Irish prime minister to come up with a solution to this dilemma. According to De Areilza, “the best thing would be not to turn away from the unanimity rule but rather to hold a vote within a year on a declaration that lays out conditions for the Irish. That is the classic way to solve this.”

Another fundamental problem is that every time someone asks the population of a European country to ratify reforms, Europe says no. De Areilza agrees with other experts that the most viable solution is for the Irish to vote once again, and to give an eagerly awaited ‘yes.’ “Otherwise, they will have to renegotiate and we don’t know how that might turn out.” That way, the countries of Europe could wind up moving ahead at various speeds, “and each country could jump on the train at its own pace.”

This reversal will also intensify the crisis of confidence in the European integration planning process. On the day of the Irish referendum, says De Areilza, “European leaders were thinking about the 20 years spent on treaties, achievements, and transformations; on the adversities and challenges involved in constructing Europe. It’s important not to turn the Irish into the scapegoats for all of Europe’s ills, but rather to reflect on what has happened.” The Irish episode should remind people that constructing Europe is “a continuous process involving a deeper and deeper economic and political integration that is also compatible with national identities, and which strengthens — not weakens — the supranational process.”

“Ireland wants a period of reflection, but this situation is delicate,” notes Molina. “The country has a political problem that will have to be solved with a new referendum. They will ask [the EU] for incentives to have that happen,” he adds. One alternative way to achieve that goal, he says, would be to frighten Irish voters by imposing some penalty,“ such as excluding Ireland from the European Union.” Ultimately, the only remedy that would enable the Treaty of Lisbon to see the light of day would be if Ireland actually ratified the long awaited referendum. “Ireland’s rejection paralyzes [what is known as] Plan B; that is the Treaty of Lisbon, which was drawn up following the failure of the Constitution. There is no other solution at the current time. Without Ireland, the Treaty doesn’t make sense, because it is an institutional change at the European level,” says Molina.

Is there a crisis in the European Union? “Yes, but if the [other] 26 states ratify [the Treaty of Lisbon], the pressure will be so great that a new solution will be necessary,” he notes. The crisis could intensify if “the uncertainty spreads to other states, which appears to be happening in the Czech Republic and Poland.” Ulied suggests that if the EU is consumed by a domino process, it will be entirely engulfed in crisis. “I think that the Irish government has not been very nimble, and that it now has to face the consequences in its dealings with Brussels. There aren’t any solutions yet, except to await the European summit that will take place in October. At that time, suggestions will be made for changing the way some things have worked out in the previous treaty. The government can go back to the people [for another vote].”

De Areilza views this as a crisis, but a crisis of growth. He believes that today’s Europe has no reason to become paralyzed. After all, the machine is moving forward. “The only thing missing is leaders to push it ahead; leaders that propose appealing projects, and don’t relax their efforts,” he says, adding that “the process of ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon should promote, rather than impede, permanent efforts to consider what kind of Europe we want. Such discussions should be well-informed, rational and as profound as possible.” More than ever, Ireland’s rejection is a demoralizing blow. “European integration is the most valuable European project in the last 60 years. It has to be socially acceptable. The plan for Europe requires the unanimous approval of all [EU] member states.”

A New Plan

Experts are cautious about forecasting what is going to happen now that Plan B has failed. The only plan Molina views as feasible is “to follow the current rules of the Treaty of Nice, which have remained too narrow to accommodate today’s needs. However, the only solution would be to reconsider the rule of unanimity, and to enact a bold plan for enabling the reforms to be carried out so long as the majority of EU member states want them; not via unanimity.”

For Molina, the Treaty of Lisbon is the European common denominator, and it “has already been watered down. Any effort at reorganization would surely wind up in the same spot. There are some countries that do not want to water it down any further. This treaty is the only possible solution. The most important states have ratified it, including the United Kingdom.”

With respect to the Irish, Molina adds, “If they knew the responsibility they have, and [realized that] that they could wind up being outside the [European] Union, they would seriously reconsider things and vote ‘yes.’” Unless Ireland holds another referendum that winds up approving the Treaty, “many countries, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, will be affected by what happened in Ireland,” Molina adds.

However, Ulied believes that Ireland’s rejection of the Treaty does nothing to change the way the EU is functioning. “I do not believe that their rejection means that the EU is at a crisis point. The problem is more about future expectations,” he notes.

The people of Europe want the EU to present proposals for solving problems that affect everyone, such as “rising prices for gasoline; climate change, and the higher food prices,” notes Ulied. He hopes that at the EU’s October summit, Ireland will present suggestions for changing the opinion of voters in that country. “To get people to change their vote, the Irish need to give them certain guarantees that there won’t be any fundamental changes in the country’s mindset.” This would be Plan C.

The next plan, Plan D, would consist of several components. “First, you would have to continue working [on a reform plan for the EU]. Next, all of the changes envisaged in the Treaty [of Lisbon] could be enacted without actually needing to enact the Treaty, but by making certain changes in the legal system of the EU. You have to continue to work on this, while thinking about the future.”

According to De Areilza, the EU was not prepared for this reversal. “The odd thing is that they knew that this risk existed,” he says. The Treaty of Lisbon was devised that way, “overshadowing the language of the Constitution that was being cast aside. It was discussed over a period of three months. They knew that there was one country, Ireland, that needed to hold a referendum, but they didn’t take that fact into consideration.”

Ulied agrees that if the Irish aren’t interested in enacting the Treaty, they can leave the EU, “but not while damaging the rest [of the countries in the EU].” The machinery of the EU has already been operating for half a century. “It is slow but sure,” he says. Europeans want to continue to work toward making the EU stronger. Ulied doesn’t dare to predict what will happen next. “In October, we’ll see what Ireland proposes. Meanwhile, we will have to weather absurd storms, along with the Czech Republic and Poland, which are sailing wherever the currents take them.” Ulied is not afraid that those two countries will follow the lead of Ireland, and fail to ratify the Treaty.

De Areilza recommends taking a time-out, and going back to debating the nature of Europe. “The advances proposed in the Treaty of Lisbon are entirely necessary. It’s getting to the point where the way that [change] happens is more important than the actual content [of the changes]. In the Europe of the Twenty-Six, there are going to be more winners and more losers than in the Europe of the Six, where there was stronger unity and more cohesion. It is a long process, but you learn from crisis.”

The rules for ratifying reform of the EU were decided by the 26 members of the Union during the so-called “rescue of the European Constitution” last year, recalls De Areilza. When October comes, observers will find out whether the Treaty of Lisbon finally sees the light of day or whether it gets lost halfway through the tunnel.