Prague looks to Plan B after Irish voters reject Lisbon Treaty

Photo: CTK

Whoever in the Irish government thought of holding a referendum on Friday the 13th might now be regretting it. Unofficial vote tallies from the popular vote on the Lisbon Treaty suggest the Irish people have said ‘No’ to the European Union’s plans for institutional reform. The collapse of Lisbon would have far-reaching consequences not only for the Union itself but also for the Czech Republic, which is due to take over the reins of the EU on January 1st 2009, the day the new rules were supposed to come into force.

Photo: CTK
The Lisbon Treaty is aimed at streamlining the EU by amending the treaties of Rome and Maastrict to help it cope with the vastly increased number of members since its expansion into Eastern Europe. The EU, or more precisely its predecessor, began with six members back in 1957. It now has 27 members, so needs to reform the way it is run.

The first attempt at reform – the EU Constitution – failed after the draft was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands. The Treaty of Lisbon is a slimmed down version, but nonetheless contains many features of the doomed constitution, such as a permanent president of the European Council, one EU representative in charge of foreign policy, a smaller European Commission and the removal of national vetoes in some areas.

The Lisbon Treaty appears to have been rejected by Ireland’s voters, but Europe is obviously not going to slide into the sea. Life will go on, but the treaty’s rejection is being described in terms as a “crisis” for the EU. The French prime minister said the Lisbon Treaty would be “dead” if Ireland rejected it, although the ratification process is expected to stumble on in other EU countries.

Photo: CTK
None of the posts mentioned above would come into effect on January 1st 2009, meaning the EU would continue in its present state. Observers say the Union would be weakened abroad, notably in its dealings with countries such as Russia and Iran, having to make do with a dysfunctional foreign policy and rotating presidency system seen by many as inefficient.

The Czechs are due to take over the EU’s revolving presidency in January 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty was due to come into effect. European leaders have been saying there is no Plan B in the event of Lisbon’s rejection, but it seems Czech officials have been working on two scenarios, one with Lisbon, one without.

Those scenarios are quite different. Obviously with no Lisbon Treaty, there will be no President of the European Council, so effectively the Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek will be nominally in charge of the EU, as the Slovenian leader is now and as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy will be in a few weeks time.

But the Czechs will unavoidably be expected during their presidency to play a leading role in steering the debate on Europe’s future, which might be a lot to ask at a time when the fragile centre-right government has enough problems to worry about at home.