Europe's unfinished house

Building European unity takes time. An Irish vote to halt it should not discourage.

Board by board. Nail by nail. Building a wider and more united Europe is a laborious process that's been going on for nearly 60 years. Uniters mustn't get discouraged when construction is interrupted, as it was by Ireland last week.

Quite firmly, Irish voters rejected a proposed treaty that would have streamlined how a greatly expanded European Union works and arguably given it more clout on the world stage.

It's not easy to move 27 member countries in the same direction, and the treaty's smoother decision-making process, along with a new sitting presidency and foreign minister, would have helped do that.

The rejected "Lisbon Treaty" is the second attempt at major institutional reform of this weighty economic and political bloc. In 2005, French and Dutch voters said no to a new constitution that would have accomplished the same goals more ambitiously.

After that, negotiators crafted a slimmed-down version that this time needed only to be ratified by member governments. Eighteen have done so, and the rest were expected to, but Ireland's own Constitution required the treaty be put to a referendum. As in so many things EU, all must agree, so this follow-on attempt, too, has gone down to defeat.

That the Irish objected is ironic, considering how much they have benefited from EU membership. EU funds helped put the pounce in the "Celtic tiger" economy, as did Ireland's adoption of the euro currency and the opening of its doors to labor from some of the EU's newer eastern members, especially Poland.

It is an economic success story that to greater or lesser degree has been repeated by other EU members – Portugal, Spain, and Greece, which joined in the 1980s, and the formerly communist countries, which started joining in 2004.

Just how far the EU has come is worth remembering at this disappointing moment. Its roots go back to 1951 and six countries, joined by the steel and coal trade and a common desire to avoid war through shared prosperity. It achieved that.

Over the years it evolved from an economic club that flourished in the cold war to a political union that acts as a magnet of democratic reform for countries once held in the Soviet grip. The path has not been easy, as members disagreed over how deep their union should go and how wide geographically it should reach.

It's unfortunate that the Irish blocked the way to reforms that would allow the EU to more nearly match its potential – especially as Russia and China gain ground. But the Celtic voice must be heeded.

As with the Dutch and French votes, this rejection was about more than creating a nimble EU. It reflected fear over loss of sovereignty – greatly exaggerated by the treaty's opponents, but nonetheless a political reality. It expressed anger with an EU elite for pulling a fast one with a second treaty that avoided approval by "the people." Many voters said they didn't understand the treaty – a failure of EU leaders to make the complex relevant.

The EU may eventually find a way around the Irish impasse. But in the meantime, it must do a much better job of building trust with skeptics. It can only do that if it finds the political will for quicker problem solving and more attentive and focused listening and communicating – absent the help that the treaty would have given it.

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