Sarkozy's Lisbon timetable


GRADUALLY THE politics of how Ireland's fellow member states in the European Union will respond to rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in last month's referendum are becoming more clear. Addressing the European Parliament yesterday on his EU presidency programme, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said he expects to propose a method and a solution to the problem by October or at the latest in December next, in co-operation with the Government.

He ruled out any collective renegotiation by the other 26 member states as a result of the Irish vote. That makes it very much a matter of the assurances, clarifications and changes Ireland can secure, on the basis of which the Government might decide to hold another referendum.

Mr Sarkozy does not determine this strategy, but he is in an influential position to formulate and guide it over the next six months. Yesterday he insisted there must be a timetable for these decisions and that they will involve either the Nice or Lisbon treaties, not some variant of them. In this he is communicating the determination of other governments not to reopen Lisbon, and to hold next June's European Parliament elections on one or the other treaty. Lisbon caps the number of parliament seats and varies their distribution. Political and legal certainty will require this question to be settled well in advance of the voting.

Even if the Government does decide to hold another referendum on Lisbon, the earliest date on which this could be done - probably next March - would be too late to decide on the legal basis for June's elections. It begins to look as if it may be necessary to decide this autumn that irrespective of the fate of the Lisbon Treaty inIreland, those elections would be held on the existing franchise. That may make good sense, especially if it reduces political pressure on the Government to hurry up a difficult decision before it is ready.

Mr Sarkozy also insisted yesterday that he does not want to see the emergence of a two-speed or multi-speed EU as a result of the Irish No. All efforts will be made to maintain EU unity. Yet he is right to insist on a timetable for decisions by the end of the year. That allows enough time for Government analysis and decision; if the issue is allowed drift beyond then the better informed voters will have forgotten about it, while those who voted against the treaty because they did not understand it (the highest proportion of No voters according to the commission's research) will have their attitudes even more confirmed.

It is a real political mess, daily reinforced by the developing economic crisis, which also requires EU solidarity. We are gradually becoming aware of the damage done to Ireland's reputation and loss of influence among political leaderships in existing and applicant states. It is too early to say how far, if at all, this may be offset by admiration for the Irish No vote among other EU electorates who did not vote on Lisbon. Most EU opinion agrees with Mr Sarkozy's remark yesterday that "institutional things are for members of parliament, not referendums" but, alone among the 27states, we have a written Constitution which allows the people to decide.