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French EU Presidency Faces Uphill Struggle

Ireland's rejection of the EU reform treaty has presented France with a weighty challenge at the start of its six-month presidency. DW-WORLD.DE asked EU experts about the options for the months ahead.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy currently doesn't have so much to smile about

Just days after taking over the rotating EU presidency on July 1, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to fly to Dublin for talks over the way forward after Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.

It's a crucial visit, according to Hugo Brady, from the London-based Centre for European Reform. And one that the Irishman believes could go either way. "Sarkozy is unpredictable. The trip could make things worse if he's impolitic. But it could also be the start of a way back, an escape from europaralysis."

The reform treaty, which, in part, aims to streamline decision-making in the enlarged 27-member bloc, needs the agreement of all members to come into effect. So what options are open to the EU?

EU leaders tired of stop-start

Portuguese Prime Minister and EU President, Jos- Súcrates, together with Portuguese Foreign Afffairs Minister, Luis Amado, German Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and German Foreign Affairs Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the signing ceremony of the Treaty of Lisbon

In December EU leaders thought they'd finally put their troubles behind them

A consensus seems to be forming among European leaders behind the idea of holding a second referendum in Ireland, according to Marco Incerti, research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. He believes there is a greater will now to press ahead with ratification than after the French and Dutch rejections of the European Constitution in 2005 "if only out of fatigue."

"Leaders in Europe are fed up. They realize this is also beginning to have a cost for them. They have less time to devote to the real issues. Europe is losing ground. EU citizens are not very happy with this situation. There is a need to move on and focus on the big issues and close the debate on the institutions," said Incerti.

This push is being spearheaded by France and Germany. One of the unfortunate outcomes of the Irish no-vote, according to Incerti, is that the crisis threatens to dominate the French EU presidency which had sought to focus on key priorities such as immigration, energy and climate change – issues that he believes are much closer to EU citizens' hearts.

Germany and France: good cop, bad cop?

Angela Merkel, Spanish King Juan Carlos, and Nicolas Sarkozy in back ground

In May, Merkel was awarded Germany's Charlemagne Prize for brokering Lisbon

Tanja Börzel, an expert in European Integration at Berlin's Free University, believes that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy could be the right team to negotiate the way out of this tricky situation. "Germany and France seem to be playing good cop, bad cop. Merkel is very adept diplomatically. He is less so. Sarkozy has been making the points and she has been smoothing the waves."

But the German professor believes that France and Germany cannot do it alone, but need to search for solutions with their European partners, including the Irish government.

Asking the Irish to vote on the Lisbon Treaty for a second time is, however, a high-risk strategy. In addition, it is not necessarily clear what voters would need to be offered to secure their approval.

The difficulty of a second vote

Voters cast their ballots in a pollling centre in Dublin city centre

Can the Irish really be asked to go through the motions again?

Brady, from the UK's Centre for European Reform, believes that it would be extremely difficult to justify a second referendum to voters. But he believes that a single document recognizing Ireland's sovereignty in key areas, such as defense, tax harmonization and abortion alongside a guarantee of a national commissioner for all EU countries might give pro-campaigners a fighting chance.

At least part of the reason for Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty was misinformation spread by the No campaign. Many opt-outs in areas said to be under threat had already been secured for Ireland in previous European treaties. But the fact that the campaign resonated with voters also revealed how little was known among the general populace about what they and their governments had already signed up to. It also pointed up an underlying mistrust about the European Union, in general.

No matter if referenda are generally agreed to be poor instruments for deciding on such complex documents as the Lisbon Treaty, the specter of forcing a second vote in order to secure the desired result merely threatens to compound the EU's perceived democratic deficits. Paradoxically, the Lisbon Treaty actually plug some of the gaps by giving the European Parliament a stronger say and allowing national parliaments direct input into the legislative process.

While Incerti believes the issue of legitimacy must be resolved in the long-term, he believes EU leaders will seek a short-term strategy to deal with the situation in Ireland.

"I don't think they will deal with this question this time round. But in the long term there could be a need for them to listen a bit more, for the European Council to be more in tune with the worries and preoccupations of Europeans. And much more intense communication efforts are needed. There is a need to get people informed at school, not telling them it's all wonderful, but letting them know what it's about," said Incerti.

Drastic solution

Libertas leader Declan Ganley walks beside his campaign bus in Dublin,

Some of the No campaign's arguments were unfounded

Another more draconian short-term solution to the Irish no vote has also been floated by the CEPS think tank. This would involve the rest of the states re-ratifying a consolidated form of the Lisbon Treaty, creating a whole new European Union, and then inviting Ireland to rejoin the bloc.

"This is a technical trick and it would involve de facto sidelining Ireland and putting as much pressure as possible on it to ratify." However, he concedes that this strategy is likely to work vis-a-vis the government, but not vis-a-vis its citizens, who have a constitutional right to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

And Sarkozy's problems do not stop at Ireland. Even if its voters could be persuaded to vote yes a second time around, seven other countries still have to ratify the treaty. In the Czech Republic this is already proving problematic. The process has currently been suspended awaiting a court ruling on the Treaty's constitutionality.

Life beyond the Lisbon Treaty?

Plate showing globe with stars created as part of a youth project

Do European citizens have an appetite for a stronger EU?

Would the EU be dead in the water without the Lisbon Treaty? Tanja Börzel says no. She foresees two other options for the bloc. One is the idea of a two-speed Europe where a core group of states would proceed to greater integration.

Another possibility is that groups of nations would work together and deepen their co-operation in certain policy areas, for example on defense and security or social and labor issues. There are already precedents for this way of working, for example, the introduction of passport-free travel among the Schengen nations and of the single European currency in the Eurozone. "The second model has the advantage that it wouldn't split Europe into a core and a periphery," said Börzel.

However, she argues that without the Lisbon Treaty the European Union would not have the legal status to play a stronger role on the global stage. "Against the backdrop of a weakened United States, the EU needs to be able to demonstrate a stronger presence on the world stage whether that be on climate change, or fighting poverty or human rights," she said.

The CEPS researcher Marco Incerti also does not believe that the European Union would grind to a halt without the Lisbon Treaty. Nevertheless, he argues that it would enable the EU to improve its work.

"This has not been as successful in recent years. It has not been able, for example, to represent European energy interests vis-a-vis Russia. The EU could continue to work as well as before but the thing should be how we can improve the work of the EU," said Incerti.

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