Ireland seeks more time as EU partners press on with treaty
20 June 2008
BELGIUM – Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen pleaded Thursday for more time to plot a way out of the EU’s reform crisis, as his European partners vowed to press on with ratifying the Lisbon Treaty.
Ahead of a summit in Brussels, Cowen said that he had barely begun the process of consulting EU leaders on how to overcome the turmoil sparked by Ireland’s stunning rejection of the charter a week ago.
"It is far too early yet for anyone to put forward proposals," he said.
"I am beginning a process of consultation and dialogue and discussion with colleagues that is about trying to find a solution for moving forward, about ensuring that Ireland can continue to play its role here in the European Union."
A week ago, more than 53 percent of Irish voters rejected the treaty, which is meant to streamline the way the EU functions as it grows, technically finishing it off, even though 19 other countries have endorsed it.
A further blow would probably send the EU spiralling into another period of political limbo as it did when French and Dutch voters rejected the draft constitution — the precursor of Lisbon — three years ago.
The Czech Republic and Poland are considered the biggest threats.
Just before chairing the summit, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said that he and Cowen had spoken and were starting to understand what had gone wrong in Ireland.
"I think that we are close to a good assessment of what happened and this is the most important starting point to fix the situation," said Jansa, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
He also expressed optimism that others would continue to ratify.
In an effort to galvanise her partners, German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined that the treaty is a vital reform tool that all nations must strive to adopt.
"We must see to it that treaties in the European Union are developed together unanimously. There is no other way," she told parliament before heading to Brussels. "We need the Lisbon Treaty."
The EU leaders received a boost Thursday when Britain approved the text, which would create a longer-term president and more powerful foreign policy supremo.
At a working lunch in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for showing "political courage by leading the ratification process."
But the Czech Republic, whose eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus has already declared the treaty finished because of the Irish vote, represents a serious obstacle. Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski has also delayed signing the document, even though parliament has endorsed it, and he might yet refuse outright.
Many leaders have pledged to give Ireland the time and space to seek a way out of the institutional crisis, and no-one is expecting a solution to materialise this week. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt stuck to that line, rejecting the idea of setting a fixed timetable now for dealing with the problem.
"Do not push on time limits now, let’s await answers in the autumn," he said. "It will have to be in the autumn." That would probably mean the next EU summit in October.
But Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said his government did not anticipate having any solutions by then.
"We will bring a progress report to the October summit but we do not anticipate solutions on the table in October," he said.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker — Europe’s longest-serving leader — appeared most pessimistic.
"I’m concerned because of all the scenarios for getting out of this crisis that I have seen, none of them really please me," he told reporters.
However, there is a growing feeling that the Irish must find some way to ratify the treaty, perhaps via a second referendum with the pill sugared a little for sceptical voters.
To show Europe’s citisens that the EU machine is not stalled, the leaders were also to express their concern over high fuel and food prices, and recommend that nations take "short-term and targeted" measures to combat it.
By Lorne Cook