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European leaders mull Irish 'no' vote at summit

  • Story Highlights
  • European leaders meet for first time since Ireland rejected new EU constitution
  • Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen expected to face tough questions
  • Rising food and oil prices will also be tackled at the Brussels summit
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BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- European leaders met Thursday for the first time since Ireland rejected the EU's new constitution, with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen expected to be on the end of some tough questioning.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has a bit of explaining to do at an EU summit in Brussels.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has a bit of explaining to do at an EU summit in Brussels.

Cowen was likely to be pushed on why he failed to persuade voters to approve the document that was meant to cement the 27-country bloc's future.

"Heads of state and government will deliberate how the situation caused by the Irish 'no' vote for the [constitution] could best be remedied," said Janez Lenarcic, the state secretary for European Affairs in Slovenia, which holds the rotating EU presidency. "They will endeavor to set a timetable for further work."

The EU leaders have other big topics on their agenda, including rising food and oil prices, Lenarcic said, but the somewhat-unexpected Irish "no" vote will dominate the two-day meeting.

At a news conference this week Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said he expected Cowen to explain to his summit counterparts why the Irish turned it down.

"I expect an open discussion and constructive exchange of views," Jansa said.

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His response hints at the frustration among European leaders that Ireland -- whose citizens make up fewer than one percent of the EU's population -- nullified a document that would have covered all member nations from Portugal to Latvia.

The constitution -- or the Lisbon Treaty, as it is officially known -- can only come into effect if all member states ratify it.

The treaty was designed to improve the workings of the enlarged European Union. It would have created the post of president, given more power to the EU's foreign policy chief and parliament, and streamlined the executive in Brussels.

Now, EU leaders must decide their next move. Do they hold another vote, in the hope that Ireland will go along this time? Do they spend years drafting another constitution that the Irish may be more likely to approve?

Ireland was the only EU nation to put the constitution to its voters in a referendum; the country's own constitution required it. The remaining 26 countries bypassed their voters, leaving it instead to legislators to approve.

That process is continuing, with more than half the EU countries having ratified the document so far.

"The EU 27 heads of state and government shared the view that the process of ratification of the Lisbon Treaty would continue since only this would guarantee European citizens a normal life into the future," read a statement from the Slovenian EU presidency this week.

Even Cowen, the day after the vote, did not declare the treaty dead, saying instead it left the EU in "uncharted waters."

When the leaders at the summit are not discussing the Irish vote, they'll be focusing on rising oil and food prices and the causes behind it, Jansa said this week. Among the causes he mentioned were increased demand for food because of a growing global population and the rapid rise in energy prices.

"We should not overlook the impact of climate change and, in part, natural disasters in some food-producing countries," he added.

Jansa proposed a system for monitoring food price increases in Europe and beyond, and he stressed the need to improve efficiency and productivity in the farming industry.

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"The European Union is investing every effort in defining sustainable criteria for the production of bio-fuels and stimulating the production of second-generation bio-fuels," he said. "We should not waste land that we could dedicate to food production; instead, second-generation bio-fuels can be produced from by-products which do not jeopardize food production."

He said the European Council would also focus on increasing EU development aid to $102.3 billion by 2010, with half of the increase being earmarked for Africa.

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