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Irish 'No' vote throws EU into crisis

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent

BERLIN, June 16 (UPI) -- EU leaders Monday were picking through the wreckage of the body's constitutional reform but failed to come up with an easy fix for the crisis sparked by the Irish "No" vote to the Lisbon Treaty.

The Irish 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent vote against the reform plans has come as a shock for EU leaders and will dominate their week: The body's foreign ministers met Monday in Luxembourg, and the Irish vote will remain on the table for Thursday and Friday at a meeting by EU heads of state and government in Brussels.

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The Lisbon Treaty aims to render the EU fit for the future by easing decision-making in a body that with 27 members over the past years has suffered from political fatigue.

But at least on Monday, the shock still prevailed, and officials had no easy solutions for what to do next.

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"It's far too early, in our view, to start coming up with solutions," said Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, seemingly clueless about how to handle the tricky situation, after Ireland became the first country (and probably will remain the only one) to say "No" to the Lisbon reform treaty in a referendum. Eighteen EU member states have already ratified the treaty in parliamentary decisions, which needs unanimous backing to come into force.

It would then do away with exactly that requirement, handing the EU majority voting instead of the tedious unanimity that has slowed down EU policymaking. The treaty would also create a European Council president and boost its foreign policy profile.

Observers say the EU desperately needs to be able to pass legislation more swiftly as asymmetrical threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons need short-term reactions. Also, the EU should boost its foreign policy and defense profile as Russia and China become bigger players in the global security scheme, and the EU is in danger of falling behind, they say. Past EU security missions have been mastered well but only after intense internal debate over who would provide the necessary troops -- a direct result of the current institutional weakness, critics say.

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Yet its future after the Irish "No" is highly uncertain.

"It would be risky to say we are going to bring the treaty back to life when we are facing a blockade," Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel of Slovenia, which currently holds the EU presidency, said ahead of a meeting in Luxembourg, according to the German Web site Spiegel Online.

There are several scenarios about the way ahead:

Repeating the referendum over the same treaty in Ireland seems out of the question, but what could happen is a new referendum on a slightly altered treaty that takes into account Irish worries (although what they are exactly remains a source of debate).

An entirely new treaty is another option, but that would result in a further delay of the reforms and may lead to an even more watered-down solution -- after all, the Lisbon Treaty is only Plan B after the failed EU constitution. A third option would be to have the current legal basis, the so-called Nice Treaty, in place for the next few years, but add extra provisions to it.

In Ireland, remarks by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier created some waves; he had proposed that Ireland "temporarily clear the way" for the rest of the EU to ratify the treaty, seemingly frustrated with the third setback to a reform after French and Dutch voters in 2005 rejected the original EU constitution project.

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Monday, however, Steinmeier's spokesman at his regular news conference played down the comments:

"No one wants to exclude another member state against its own wishes from the EU decision-making process," Martin Jaeger said. "But there could be ... scenarios where, for example, a member state under certain circumstances says, 'I am abstaining from taking part in certain decision-making processes.'"

What Jaeger likely referred to is a strategy proposed by Germany and France, the Europe of two speeds, as some have called it. Under this plan, nations willing to back the treaty and further EU integration would join forces, while others have the option to opt out. This has happened to other projects, most notably the euro, which is the main currency in 15 of the 27 member states. But whether Lisbon can repeat that success story is currently in serious doubt.

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