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Published: Wednesday, 6/18/2008

Europe suffers as Bush roams, Irish nix treaty

EUROPE last week endured both a major body blow and a piece of irrelevance.

The major setback was the vote by Ireland, one of the smallest European Union member states, rejecting the Treaty of Rome, which would reform the EU. The distracting piece of irrelevance was the visit to five EU states - Slovenia, Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom - by President Bush.

The action of the Irish was a perfect disaster. The rules of the EU say all member states - now 27 - must agree if the new Rome Treaty is to go into effect. Eighteen parliaments have approved. The population of the EU is now 490 million. Ireland has 3 million registered voters. On Thursday about half of them turned out to vote. Of those, 53.4 percent voted "no." Thus, fewer than 1 million people sank the Treaty of Rome for the other 500 million Europeans.

This absurdity was brought about by the Irish, whose country was one of Europe's poorest before it joined the EU. Now, its standard of living is among Europe's highest. Ireland has benefited enormously from other EU countries' aid and investment, which was provided in pursuit of the EU goal to bring up to par the standard of living in poorer member countries.

The Irish "no" vote was the result of a national campaign waged against the new treaty. Negative arguments ran from, "There's nothing in this for Ireland" to more intellectual objections that the new treaty favored large countries such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy to the disadvantage of countries like Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, and Ireland.

The Irish "no" vote voided years of negotiation - in which Ireland had been a full participant - that preceded the EU's submission of the treaty to its 27 member states.

The problem that the new Rome treaty seeks to address is the unwieldiness of the EU. It stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic and from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. It has grown from 6 members to 27. My own experience of it as an American diplomat was that when it acted, with all that punch behind it, the EU was impressive. The problem was that its decision-making process, subject to veto by any one member state, was ponderous to the point of sometimes near-paralysis.

The Treaty of Rome seeks to increase the EU's agility and efficiency. In particular, largely unstated, the reforms are intended to make Europe more capable of standing beside the United States and China as a continental superpower.

And then the Irish came along.

It isn't clear what the EU will do now.

Its leaders will address that question at a key meeting in Brussels this week. It can't kick Ireland out. It will be hard for it to move ahead to implement the treaty with the rules currently in place and an Irish "no" on the record. The French and Dutch electorates voted against the predecessor to the Rome Treaty's reforms in 2005.

The governments of those two countries bypassed that problem this time by leaving approval to the parliaments, which they control.

There is, in general, considerable anti-EU sentiment among European populations. The EU hands down too many laws; it costs too much. Europeans, like Americans, don't like government much in general.

Anyway, lots of work will need to be done to answer the question "Now what?" In the meantime, last week, while the Irish were voting to drive EU modernization into the ditch, Mr. Bush turned up for a Mick Jaggerlike farewell tour.

He started in Slovenia, the current president of the EU. He reviewed troops. He accepted farewell gifts, including a four-volume set of books on St. Peter's from Pope Benedict XVI. He sang his old familiar songs: Apply sanctions against Iran or else, send troops to Afghanistan, understand that the world's economic problems were caused by all of us and are not rooted in his own mismanagement of the American economy.

The blessing for the Europeans as they watched Mr. Bush's unevolved, unevolving positions, stated with his customary inarticulateness, is that the end is near.

If someone told German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that there was a real possibility that Mr. Bush might be succeeded by putative Republican candidate John McCain, even the long-suffering Ms. Merkel and the irrepressible Mr. Sarkozy might ground arms.

The Pope is fairly sure that, unlike defeated British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Bush won't convert.



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