Beyond the question of what happens with the Lisbon Treaty, perhaps the most important consequence of the Irish 'no' was to demonstrate, yet again, the EU's severe lack of legitimacy among European citizens.
Given the unpopularity of the political class in most, if not all, member states, it is important for national leaders to understand the citizens' message. What's more, the timing is unfortunate ahead of the European elections in June 2009.
For the treaty to enter into force, it must be ratified by all 27 member states. However, Ireland's rejection of the text by a 53-37% majority has thrown the EU institutional settlement into doubt.
At a summit in June, European leaders made clear there would be no new treaty and agreed to give the Irish time to reflect and start exploring possible solutions at their next meeting in October 2008 (EURACTIV 20/06/08).
The ratification process has therefore continued in the remaining EU countries, though potential stumbling blocks remain, most notably in the Czech Republic (EURACTIV 30/06/08).
A lone referendum
Ireland was the only EU country to require that the Lisbon Treaty be ratified through a nationwide referendum. In all other EU member states, national parliaments are dealing with ratification.
This is due to a 1987 ruling by the country's Supreme Court (Crotty case) which stipulates that significant changes to the European Union treaties require an amendment to the Irish Constitution - which is always changed by means of a referendum - before being ratified by the State.
Legal opinion is divided on whether the Crotty ruling obliges the government to systematically defer to the Irish people whenever there is a significant new development in the EU legal setting. But because of this legal precedent, Ireland has always held a referendum on every new EU treaty.
The issue of the 'lone referendum' has also sparked a political polemic across the EU. Some have claimed it is unfair and undemocratic for one small country to block reforms for the rest of the Europe.
Others have praised the Irish electorate, arguing that the Irish result is merely a continuation of the French and Dutch 'no' votes in 2005. This continuum, they claim, highlights the declining legitimacy of the EU in the eyes of European citizens. The question "what part of 'no' does the EU not understand?" has been asked across the continent.
Reasons behind Irish 'no'
Opinion polls indicate that many Irish voted 'no' mainly because they felt that the text of the treaty was incomprehensible. This view was reinforced when Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Commissioner Charlie McCreevy admitted that they had not read the treaty in full.
The 'no' camp also successfully campaigned along the following lines:
- The treaty would imperil Irish neutrality.
- Abortion would have to be permitted.
- The EU would be able to interfere with Irish tax rates.
- Irish sovereignty would be jeopardised.
The loss of a full-time commissioner also emerged as a common concern among 'no' voters, as did the belief that the treaty could be renegotiated to ensure a better deal for Ireland (EURACTIV 04/06/08).
Lastly, the vote was seen as stinging rejection of the political classes, while the 'yes' campaign was roundly criticised for ineffective advocacy in explaining the importance of the Union and the treaty.
The Treaty of Lisbon's rejection was all the more incomprehensible to 'yes' campaigners considering the economic benefits that EU membership has brought to Ireland. When the country joined the EU in 1973, it was the poorest in the Community; now it is the second richest in GDP terms.
It will now be mainly in the hands of the incoming French Presidency to lead the search for a way out. Ironically, it was France that threw the EU into a similar state of chaos when its own citizens rejected the now-defunct Constitution in 2005.
Speaking at the European Parliament on 10 July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his intention to "engage in dialogue" with the Irish government "to try to find solutions". "The French Presidency will propose a method," he said, adding that he hopes for "a solution, in agreement with the Irish government, in October or in December".
The potential scenarios:
The European Council agreed to pursue ratification in the remaining countries. In the meantime, a re-run of the referendum could take place, as was the case after the Irish first rejected the EU's Nice Treaty in 2001.
Other, more original solutions could emerge, like introducing new opt-outs to keep the Irish electorate happy, or changing key provisions of the Treaty, like the number of commissioners.
Irish voters had expressed concern over the possible loss of their commissioner if the EU executive body were to be slimmed down according to the Lisbon Treaty. Keeping the 'one commissioner per country' principle was aired as a possible compromise solution.
The Irish government is expected to present its proposal for a resolution of the issue to the European Council on 15 October.
The principal solutions are:
1. Ireland votes again, adding a Declaration to the treaty which would be explained in a way the Irish politicians have so far failed to do. If Ireland refuses, it would find itself in an impossible political position with economic ramifications, particularly if the treaty has been ratified in all other 26 member states. Holding another vote on essentially the same issues would leave the bloc in the same legal impasse if there were a second Irish rejection, although a second referendum could have more chance of success provided that all 26 countries have ratified by then and the 'yes' campaign is more convincing.
2. Declare the Lisbon Treaty dead and continue with the Treaty of Nice
As the Lisbon Treaty requires 27-member unanimity to be brought into force, some have called for it to be declared dead. This would result in the EU continuing to operate under the institutional framework of the Nice Treaty. However, this option is opposed by most leading European politicians, many of whom believe it would effectively mean that almost a decade of slow and painful pan-European consensus-building had been wasted. Nevertheless, some changes are possible without the new treaty and other key provisions could be brought in when the occasion permits, such as the Croatian Accession Treaty.
3. A new, deeper union
In this scenario, a new union of 26 member states would be established by the treaty and would operate alongside the existing one. It is hard to imagine how this would work legally or politically, especially since the Czech Republic and Poland have rebuffed the idea of isolating one country.
4. A multi-speed Europe based on differentiated integration
Groups of states would cooperate in different policy areas under the existing 'enhanced cooperation' mechanism. Flexible integration includes different models ranging from 'Europe à la carte', which allows member states to pick and choose the laws and policies which suit them, to the establishment of a 'hardcore' Europe.
This is certainly possible but it would be messy without a 'hard core' as Ireland is a member of the euro zone. It is also difficult to imagine as French President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly opposes the view that Europe could continue to function by allowing countries to engage in new, more advanced forms of co-operation should they so desire. "Europe paid a high price for letting itself be divided by a wall of shame. Let's think twice before we leave countries behind," Sarkozy said while presenting the French Presidency's priorities to the European Parliament on 10 July.
5. New treaty
A new treaty could be adopted, though realistically this seems impossible to contemplate. The reforms proposed by the Lisbon Treaty, as mentioned above, are the result of almost a decade of slow and painful pan-European consensus-building, and it is unlikely that European leaders would be willing to start from scratch.
Towards a weaker EU?
If the EU fails to find a quick way out of the crisis, it is likely to be weakened internationally, notably in its dealings with powers such as China and Russia. Indeed, a key aim of the new treaty was to lend more credibility to the EU as a political heavyweight in the international arena, notably through the establishment of a permanent EU Council President and an External Action Service as well as a strengthening of the role of the EU's High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.
Hopes for real progress in forging a Common Foreign & Security Policy (CFSP) and a European Security and Defence Policy could be dashed.
However, the EU has been operating effectively under the Nice Treaty even after its enlargement to 27 members.