BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European leaders will struggle on Thursday to put an EU reform treaty back on track after Ireland’s “No” vote, but will seek to salvage the bloc’s dented image by talking up possible action on rising fuel prices.
Last week’s resounding rejection by Irish voters of a treaty designed to prevent gridlock in EU policy has cast a pall over a two-day summit originally intended to point the bloc towards a new, more confident future.
With all 27 EU members required to endorse the Lisbon Treaty before it can see the light of day, the pact is now unlikely to take effect on January 1 next year as planned and could even face the same fate as the defunct EU constitution it was to replace.
Britain’s parliament rubber-stamped the treaty late on Wednesday, and most of the other eight countries still to endorse it vowed to follow suit as part of a concerted effort to keep it alive.
Yet Ireland says it will not be bullied into a fast decision on options such as a risky second vote, and diplomats believe the summit can at best merely sketch out a timeline for rescue efforts in the months ahead.
“There won’t be any solution to Ireland at this summit,” said a German government source, while adding that sooner or later Ireland would have to come forward with proposals.
“The Irish have said ‘No’. But simply saying ‘No’ is not enough — they also have to say what they do want.”
Another diplomat suggested a new summit in October could be the chance for Ireland to present a “wish-list” of what it needs to persuade voters to go back to the ballot boxes.
However the sheer breadth of concerns voiced by the largely pro-EU Irish against an opaque text which few profess to have read has stunned Europe’s politicians and made the quest for a solution even harder.
Some have suggested offering the Irish assurances the treaty will not threaten their cherished neutrality, make abortion easier or increase taxes — and then call for a re-vote.
Another option is a guarantee that all 27 states will have one top job each in the Brussels institutions, so addressing an Irish fear that the Lisbon Treaty reforms would lead to it and other smaller countries losing influence within the EU.
Others blame a political elite in Brussels and the bloc’s capitals for neglecting everyday problems facing the EU’s half a billion people, including surging fuel and food prices that are hitting household budgets and the wider economy.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who last week faced French criticism for not doing enough to tackle such concerns, urged the EU on the eve of the summit not to fall into “institutional navel-gazing” over the Irish vote.
“The important task for the European Council (summit) is to show that the “No” vote regarding the Lisbon treaty is not an excuse for inaction,” he told the EU legislature in Strasbourg, calling for continued work on climate change and energy policy.
As truck drivers and farmers staged go-slow protests with lorries and tractors around Brussels to highlight demands for action on soaring fuel costs, Barroso said the summit would back short-term measures to help the poorest sectors of society.
“We have to give a signal that we are willing to take action on the real concerns of our citizens,” said one EU diplomat of ideas including subsidies on fuel costs for the poor or French proposals to offset oil price hikes with VAT cuts.
But leaders believe Europeans must sooner or later get used to an era of costly fuel and diplomats played down prospects of major new policies being announced.
A draft of the statement to be issued after the summit stressed that governments must above all do nothing that could set off an upwards spiral in wages and inflation.
Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach and Marcin Grajewski; editing by Philippa Fletcher