Such was the fallout of Ireland's "no" vote in a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty that three days after the EU signed a stabilization agreement with Bosnia, putting that country on course to eventual accession, French President Nicolas Sarkozy goes to Brussels and effectively says the club's membership is closed at the moment — and might not be open for a while to come.
Talk about mixed signals. You'd have to forgive EU hopefuls in the Balkans — and also Turkey — a twinge of anxiety.
Together with Germany, France has championed Lisbon. These countries insist the treaty, which has to be ratified by all 27 states to take effect, will make the EU a stronger, more cohesive union by creating a full-time president and foreign policy chief to represent Europe and eliminating national veto power in several areas. Furthermore, supporters say, more enlargement is impossible without Lisbon because the EU's current institutional pact, the Nice Treaty, was designed for 27 countries and is at capacity.
Sarkozy put this latter point plainly in his aforementioned comments at a Brussels EU summit on 19 June, where leaders discussed Europe's most recent "crisis" and worst headache since the French and Dutch rejected the EU constitution in 2005, the document Lisbon was drafted to replace.
"No Lisbon, no enlargement," he said.
Speaking the same day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported Sarkozy : "I agree, because the Nice Treaty limited the union to a membership of 27 states …"
Other European leaders, however, insist this is nonsense. Enlargement can continue with or without Lisbon, they say, their view seemingly backed by the union's signing the stabilization agreement with Bosnia the same week French and German leaders said the club's doors were closed.
For EU hopefuls in the Balkans — especially Croatia, which aims to join in 2010 — this question is significant for several reasons: The Irish could reject Lisbon again in another referendum; Ireland's "no" has emboldened Lisbon-skeptics in the still-undecided Czech Republic; and Brussels needed two years to replace the failed EU constitution. At stake for these aspirants are not only the billions of euros in development money granted to new members but also the weighty economic and political clout EU entry carries.
So, does Europe really need Lisbon if it is to continue growing? The simple answer is no. But, like many things in the EU, it's not quite that simple.
Legally, there's no reason the EU cannot expand without Lisbon. Though much has been made about Nice restricting the union to 27 members, that's not chiseled in granite.
"What you have in the previous treaty is an institutional arrangement for up to 27 member states," says Piotr Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "Legally speaking, that could be easily amended."
This would require some administrative work, including recalculating individual countries' seat counts in the European Parliament, but a larger EU would certainly be manageable without Lisbon. Many European leaders have pointed this out. Most notably, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has said the EU's commitment to admitting new members from the Balkans is not contingent on the treaty.
Lisbon and enlargement is not a legal issue at the moment; it's a political issue — with France and Germany holding trump.
Indeed, though the European Commission handles negotiations with candidate countries, the European Council, comprising the leaders of each member state, has to unanimously approve aspirants. France and Germany are the most influential countries on the council, so no one's getting through without the backing of Sarkozy and Merkel.
NOT A GAMBLING MAN
At the moment, neither leader is backing down. They have encouraged the seven countries that haven't approved the treaty to continue the ratification process. Assuming none rejects Lisbon — the Czech Republic is the only question mark now, with its prime minister recently saying he wouldn't bet 100 crowns (roughly 4 euros) on its success — the Irish issue will be dealt with at another EU summit in October.
Brussels will likely offer Ireland — whose constitution requires a referendum rather than parliamentary vote on Lisbon — a few concessions and ask for another vote. This strategy worked before with Nice. Ireland rejected that treaty in 2001 only to approve it in a second referendum. This time around a reversal might be less likely, however, considering the "no" vote won by a healthy 6-point margin on high turnout.
This leaves Croatia and the other Balkan accession hopefuls in a prisoner's dilemma in which their only choice is to continue to adopt the legal and institutional changes necessary for membership. Bosnia and Macedonia, the latter of which is a full-fledged EU candidate, should be safe because they're a minimum of five years away from joining.
"The consequence of this situation is that the accession countries should continue their processes, and hopefully by the time this is done the institutional crisis will be over," Kaczynski says.
Croatia should be more concerned. It aims to end negotiations next year, hoping for membership in 2010. But time is running short, and the earliest Ireland would vote again is the start of 2009.
The good news is that Croatia's negotiations with the commission have continued, and Zagreb has gotten reassurances from Brussels. For his part, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader seems confident.
"There are no differences within the EU about the support for our accession," he said on 20 June, as quoted by Reuters.
Unfortunately, that's just not true.