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EU ponders next step after voters in Ireland reject treaty

The defeat throws into doubt the push for a European constitution.

June 14, 2008|Donny Mahoney and Kim Murphy | Special to The Times

DUBLIN, IRELAND — European leaders were scrambling Friday to find a new path to a more powerful and manageable European Union after Irish voters rejected a treaty meant to bolster the alliance's government.

The rejection threw into doubt nearly a decade of efforts to overcome widespread public skepticism and develop a European constitution. The reforms would create a powerful European presidency and diplomatic corps and improve cooperation on law enforcement and defense.

Because the measure must be ratified by all 27 member states of the alliance, Ireland's rejection struck a potentially fatal blow. European leaders now face the prospect of resubmitting the treaty to hostile Irish voters or, to the dismay of all, renegotiating it yet again.

"It is clear that the Lisbon Treaty will not take effect on Jan. 1, 2009," Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's longest-serving leader, said after Irish voters rejected the treaty in a referendum 53% to 46%.

"It's a bad choice for Europe, and for Ireland," Juncker said.

Alliance leaders are scheduled to meet next week, and most vowed to proceed with winning ratification. In the end, however, the Irish vote left European governance in the same place it has been almost since the EU's birth: in paralysis and limbo.

"This is a leap in the dark," said Brigid Laffan, professor of European government at University College Dublin. "We don't know what will happen next."

The European Union was formed in 1993 as a loose alliance of countries seeking to expand three decades of economic cooperation into the spheres of security, justice, human rights and border control. Since then, it has grown in size, complexity and its ability to compete with world powers.

But, especially after 10 nations joined in 2004, the EU's traditional rule by consensus became unwieldy, even as demands grew for a more cohesive foreign policy, more assertive military cooperation, and decision making that could not be held hostage to a single dissenting country.

Eighteen nations have fully or partially ratified the treaty, which allows decisions to be made in many areas by qualified majority vote.

Ireland was the only nation whose constitution required a referendum, and the 1.6 million citizens who voted Thursday have thrown a wrench into plans for more than 490 million residents of Europe.

"I am extremely mindful today . . . of our European partners for whom this vote will represent a considerable disappointment and a potential setback to many years of effort," Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said. "Ireland has no wish to halt the progress of a union which has been the greatest force for peace and prosperity in the history of Europe."

He said the Irish government would "reflect on the implications of this vote" and consult next week at a summit of European Council leaders on how to proceed. One option would be to call another vote, considered unlikely given the high turnout and definitive defeat. Another would be to launch a new round of negotiations on the reforms, which failed in an earlier version when French and Dutch voters rejected them in 2005.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for continuing the process of ratification by other member states, which are considering the treaty through their parliaments. In some cases, heads of state must also sign the document. Britain is next, with a vote scheduled next week.

But British opponents of the treaty were already signaling their intent to use the Irish defeat as ammunition to call for a referendum in Britain.

"The French said no to it, the Dutch said no to it, and it was brought back, and the only people who have been given a chance to pass judgment on it, the Irish, have now said no to it," said Conservative Party leader David Cameron.

The defeat came despite a major push for approval by the Irish government, which argued that the country's economic boom in the last decade has been fueled by access to the European market and the availability of EU subsidies for agriculture and infrastructure.

But a coalition of nationalists, right-wing Catholics, businesspeople and groups leery of the treaty's potential impact on taxes, agriculture and abortion policy argued against it.

Analysts said it would be difficult either to schedule a second referendum or to find areas of controversy from which Ireland could opt out. Dublin has already established independent positions under previous agreements on many areas of European policy, including its traditional stance of military neutrality.

In the end, many voters appeared suspicious of a 300-plus-page document they said was difficult to understand.

"So few people actually know what actually is in the treaty," said Derek O'Halloran, a resident of County Kildare. "Even though the EU has been great for Ireland, most Irish people don't really know the ins and outs of how the treaty works, or how Europe works, for that matter. And a lot of people are thinking, 'If I don't understand what I'm voting for, I'm going to vote no.' "

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Mahoney reported from Dublin and Times staff writer Murphy from London. Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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