The Irish "NO" in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty makes the upcoming French presidency of the European Union more difficult and also more important. Nicolas Sarkozy sees himself pushed to the front line with the support of Angela Merkel. His task is now even more vital to the future of the institutional reforms.
All the Union Member States have the right to express their opinion on the reform of the institutions and the Irish vote will not interrupt the on-going procedure. It will only be when each of the countries has expressed its opinion that we shall see the reality of the situation and find the legal and political means to face this. In any case Ireland will have to say what it does not want in this Treaty and what it wants for Europe.
However we would be wrong not to take any note of this new referendum result even if it were just to say that Europe has a problem with its population.
Evidently the people of Europe are not against the unification of the continent. But they take up any opportunity provided to them by national approval procedures with regard to European decisions to express their discontent. This may involve their governments, the worries about rapid change, their misunderstanding of decision making methods and the running of the Union or more simply their criticism of European politicians. In other words it not as much the final goals of the European Union than its mechanisms and politicians that they condemn.
We might say it is more a lack of knowledge and a lack of explanation. This is true but it is not enough. Indeed the Union has reached a political stage of development much more quickly than originally planned by its founders. It must now become political – it has to debate and confront public opinion – listen to requests and expectations and be able to answer in real terms.
This is not easy given its nature. The European Union is still both a union of voluntary independent States and a union of people who have already elected a European Parliament which enjoys almost federal powers. It must now show that it is possible to respect national identity and yet build a supranational democracy.
A good way of succeeding in this task would be to give Europeans an opportunity to say together what they think of a particular political issue. Why not take advantage of the next European Parliament elections in June 2009 to offer them this chance? The election would just have to be personalised and Europeanised by announcing the choice of a leader to head allied national lists and who would be devoted to chairing the Commission if his/her list won; we should turn this election into an opportunity, which will necessarily be organised in all Member States to ask each European to say what his choice is in terms of a president for the European Council.
In the first case the European campaign would be undertaken following real European political programmes.
In the second instance a European referendum, which might even be consultative since the decision of appointing a president belongs to the Heads of State and Government, would help greatly in politicising the election and in obliging candidates to define themselves according to political choices of European interest.
The Europe-wide campaigns would almost certainly be the focus of lively debate. These elections would be the source of a more direct European democracy. They would create a feeling of belonging amongst a political democratic body across the entire modern world.