This crisis pits two fundamental principles in the EU's political makeup against each other -- those of national sovereignty and a common European identity -- and may yet force the union back to the constitutional drawing board.
So far, the two principles have coexisted in relative harmony. National sovereignty has been the dominant strand -- the EU began over 50 years ago as a project of nation-states and has remained such, with the member states having the final say in most matters.
The pooling of sovereignty has given rise to common institutions, however, whose legitimacy is increasingly derived through a direct appeal to a European public. The European Commission, the EU's executive, has won growing autonomy in areas such as the internal market, the environment, and, increasingly, justice and home affairs. It is backed up by the European Parliament, initially a body of member states' delegates, but directly elected since 1979. The erosion of the member states' veto right has been part of the same pattern.
The Irish referendum has put a fundamental question mark over how these two principles interact. The Lisbon Treaty is in essence a constitutional treaty, and its rejection by a member state threatens to check the consolidation and further integration of the entire EU. This is in marked difference to the 2005 French and Dutch referendums, which had scuppered the Lisbon Treaty's predecessor. These reverses were interpreted as a reaction against enlargement, not further integration.
From the point of view of member-state sovereignty, Ireland's decision is wholly legitimate. The Lisbon Treaty needs the consent of all member states, with each entitled to veto it. On the other hand, it is at the very least questionable from the point of view of the evolving shared European democratic tradition. Ireland's 3 million registered voters may be said to have forced their decision on all of the 490 million EU subjects.
The fact that Ireland made its choice by referendum adds a devilish complication. On the one hand, the Irish voters did indeed defy the rest of Europe. But, on the other hand, they did not necessarily defy its people. Instead, they threw down the gauntlet to 26 parliaments -- because in no other EU member state are voters given the opportunity to express their will directly.
Lacking Popular Support
Ireland's rejection by referendum signals a fundamental weakness in the EU's integration drive -- it lacks the obvious support of the wider European public. Various EU treaties have been voted down four times in the past in referendums that have had to be rerun or their decisions overturned by other means (Ireland in 1991, Denmark in 2001, France and the Netherlands in 2005). Needless to say, having to "fix" plebiscites to keep the EU going is proving increasingly damaging.
As a method of political decision-making, referendums are notoriously unpredictable and prone to abuse. The postwar German constitution, for example, makes no provision for one after the method was exploited by Hitler. In contemporary Europe, referendums regularly become protest votes harnessing multiple sources of discontent.
The real problem for the EU lies in the fact that as a political project it has proceeded incrementally. Consolidating treaties are inevitably cumbersome and often impenetrable texts, difficult to communicate to voters. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen admitted during the referendum campaign not having read the treaty "cover to cover." In stark contrast to the United States in the late 18th century, the EU's stabs at constitutional treaties do not follow revolutionary shifts in popular political perspective, but instead are engineered from above.
The collision of this practice with the Irish voter now threatens to break the double helix of national sovereignty and European political integration. It also poses difficult questions for the future of further political integration, which -- for now -- has effectively been vetoed.
It is a sign of the strength of the nascent European constitutional tradition that most EU member states, led by France and Germany, have insisted the Lisbon Treaty is not dead. Even Britain, the EU's arch-skeptic, has announced it intends to ratify the treaty in time for the summit this week.
The problem that now faces the EU is not so much that some more enthusiastic member states might break away to launch a "multispeed" union. In some ways this is already uncontroversially the case as attested by the Schengen area, the euro zone, and the so-called "G6" police-cooperation scheme. Also, a selective political union with a president and a foreign minister would be very difficult to establish -- given that it would need to include Britain (or lack global clout) and would probably be unacceptable to Germany in view of Berlin's overwhelming interest in stability at its eastern borders.
More likely is an attempt to isolate Ireland, moving ahead with the rest of the 26 member states. Ireland would then have to hammer out its own individual arrangements with the rest of the EU. This would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the skeptics, openly undermining their powers within the EU combined with the threat of possible exclusion. The Lisbon Treaty could yet be rejected by the Czech Republic, where it has been submitted to the Constitutional Court for approval. Many other countries in Eastern Europe are also intensely skeptical of further political integration.
Russia, which increasingly vies for influence at the EU's eastern borders, will no doubt be following events with keen interest.