EU ponders new Irish referendum
European Union foreign ministers ponder granting Ireland key concessions enabling it to hold a new referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.17 June 2008
LUXEMBOURG - European Union foreign ministers Monday pondered granting Ireland key concessions enabling it to hold a new referendum on the Lisbon Treaty later this year and pull the bloc out of its latest institutional quagmire.
Though Ireland itself has remained tight-lipped on the issue of a new referendum, the proposed solution was hinted at by Germany and Luxembourg at a meeting in Luxembourg, the first to be attended by all 27 member states since last week's Irish no to the treaty.
"We must help the Irish get back into the boat by doing something special for Ireland," Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn said.
Asselborn talked about drafting "a declaration" providing Ireland with assurances on a number of key areas such as abortion, taxation and defence.
On Thursday, a majority of Irish rejected the treaty, which is designed to make the expanded bloc more efficient and give it a stronger voice in the world, amid concerns on such issues.
Ireland is the only EU country whose constitution forces new EU treaties to have to be approved via a referendum.
And while most EU ministers said no rush decisions should be taken, German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier insisted that a solution would have to be found "this year".
Steinmeier said "the Danish model from 1992 could be a model in this crisis."
In 1992, Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union out of the European Community. However, a repeat referendum a year later approved the treaty after the Danish government won legally-binding opt-outs in such areas as defence, justice and citizenship.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin did not explicitly address the issue on Monday, saying only that his government had "an open approach".
The Irish no to the Lisbon Treaty has also opened the doors to the possible expansion of a "two-speed Europe," whereby only willing member states would go ahead with closer integration.
But ministers were adamant on Monday that the Lisbon Treaty was "alive," with France's Bernard Kouchner insisting that the ratification process should continue.
"Nobody has suggested moving ahead, in fact the opposite is true. And Ireland does not want to be left behind," Martin said in Luxembourg.
The Lisbon reform treaty was agreed by governments after two years of wrangling following a botched attempt to create a more ambitious EU constitution.
And France, which is to assume the six-months rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, is keen to avoid another era of institutional navel-gazing.
Summing up Monday's discussions, British Foreign Minister David Miliband said three broad themes had emerged: "Respect for the Irish vote; recognition that the Irish government has asked for some time to analyse the result and decide the next move; and a commitment that Europe needs to stick together."
And while Austria's Ursula Plassnik said it would be unfair to corner Ireland, Denmark's Per Stig Moeller said that since the Irish government had signed the treaty, it was now up to Ireland to find a solution.
While 18 national parliaments have already said yes to Lisbon, the treaty cannot come into force until it is ratified by all 27 member states.
"The whole process started in May 2000 ... and here we are eight years later still struggling to get the treaty through. The challenges that we face have gone nowhere," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb complained.
The EU executive has commissioned a survey to try and find out what went wrong in Ireland, and most ministers concurred on Monday that Dublin would know best.
"There will not be any attempt from the outside, from member states or from Brussels, to influence or push the Irish government in some way," Latvia's Maris Riekstins said.
Another potential stumbling bloc to the treaty coming into force is represented by the Czech Republic, whose government has referred the text to its constitutional court.
So far, no one has openly called for the creation of an expanded two-speed Europe, along the lines of the common currency (the euro) and free-movement area (Schengen), both of which are used in some, but not all, member states.
"It is hard to imagine that a two-speed Europe could be created in questions such as decision-making procedures and the institutions," Riekstins noted.
The fall-out from the Irish vote was to be discussed by EU leaders at their regular summer summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
[dpa / Expatica]