The early results of Ireland’s referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon look solid enough: The Irish voters have clearly rejected the EU reform treaty by a wide margin.
This means that the Lisbon Treaty, as it now stands, fails to become binding for Ireland, but also for the 26 other member states.
The default option is that the European Union continues to be governed by the Treaty of Nice (2001), admitted to be inadequate by the very signatories the moment it was born, as attested by the Nice declaration.
The high point of the reform process was the Laeken declaration, which led to the European Convention, more closely resembling a constituent assembly than anything we have had on offer as EU citizens.
If a quirk of Ireland’s Constitution demands a referendum each time the EU needs to reform its treaties, it is their system. If the Irish vote to block progress, it is their legitimate choice.
After this resounding No, it would be distasteful to tinker with the treaty and to offer the Irish voters a second vote on more or less the same contents. It is hard to imagine the present or any Irish government in the near future willing even to try.
Unacceptable, however, is that the rest of the European Union should suffer more than necessary as a result. In about half a year since the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, 18 member states have fulfilled the essential requirements to ratify the amending treaty.
Most of them were ready to approve the Constitutional Treaty, but had to accept the diluted Lisbon Treaty in an effort to get all the member states on board.
But enough is enough. Something has to give, because the Nice Treaty is not fit for Europe’s future challenges.
Although the European Union would need more, rather than less democratic reform offered by the Lisbon Treaty, ambitious new reforms may be too much in the immediate future.
With regard to the substance, there are two options: The new European Union could be based on the Constitutional Treaty or the Lisbon Treaty. In the short run, the Constitutional Treaty would probably encounter more problems in some member states than the Lisbon Treaty freshly ratified or undergoing ratification.
As a technical improvement, the contents of the new treaty could be based on the consolidated version of the Lisbon Treaty, to give everybody the chance to read the text from the outset.
Only the provisions on entry into force would have to be reformed in a real sense, and some technical modifications made with regard to signatories, territory, member states, languages etc., mostly in the final provisions.
These additions to the Lisbon Treaty would not require too much work, if the political will is there. This and future treaties would essentially enter into force between the ratifying states, as most international treaties. These limited changes could be ratified separately and in short order.
If this is the way forward for Europe, it leaves the question of the state or states staying outside the new European Union. Here it would be best to wait to see what they propose. If these suggestions are reasonable, like participation in the European Economic Area (EEA) and possibly some other policy fields, these matters could be negotiated in a constructive atmosphere.
After the first flurry of activity, the EU leaders would have to discuss the future of the European Union and its democratic legitimacy more seriously.
The countries outside the Union or its core could contemplate their future relations without rush, until the next referendum.