EU leaders move to keep treaty alive amid fears of permanent rift

Deep cracks appeared yesterday in the efforts of European governments to put a brave face on Ireland's rejection of the European Union reform treaty.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg today – and heads of government meeting in Brussels from Thursday – will gauge whether there is any chance of keeping the treaty alive by bouncing Ireland into holding a second referendum.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who takes over the EU's presidency next month, and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, nominally supported by Britain's Gordon Brown, plan to push for the ratification of the treaty by the other 26 EU nations. They hope that Ireland will then buckle under pressure and fall into line next year.

The Prime Minister has made it clear he will not postpone the approval of the treaty by the House of Lords on Wednesday although that will lead to angry protests in the Commons by Tories today. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, is calling for Parliament's approval of the treaty to be halted. But there were also signals that Mr Brown will tell EU leaders at the Brussels summit that he is prepared to see the treaty ditched rather than have a two-tier Europe.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, suggested at the weekend that the EU may have to write off its seven years' work on streamlining and strengthening European institutions. Mr Miliband described the Lisbon treaty as "an old agenda". He suggested that Britain wanted to move on to a "new agenda": tackling terrorism, climate change and economic insecurity. This implies that, despite assurances that the ratification process will continue in Britain, the Government is content to let the Lisbon treaty die. "The rules are absolutely clear," Mr Miliband said. "If all 27 countries do not pass the Lisbon Treaty then it does not pass into law."

Mr Miliband said it was up to the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, to advise other EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday if the treaty could be saved by a second referendum. "There can be no question of bulldozing or bamboozling or ignoring the Irish vote." The idea of a two-speed Europe, or a Europe of different divisions "doesn't accord with the realities today," he said.

Can the Treaty of Lisbon, formerly known as the draft European constitution, be rescued? Or will the ingenuity of all Europe's politicians and bureaucrats be unable to put the "Humpty" treaty together again?

The most immediate threat comes from the Czech Republic. The country's supreme court is to rule in the autumn whether EU reform treaty is compatible with the Czech constitution. The President, Vaclav Klaus – a Eurosceptic with no direct executive power – has called for the entire ratification process to be abandoned following the Irish vote. If the Czech Republic refuses to ratify, there could be no "gang of 26" to cajole Ireland into holding a second referendum.

Rumblings have also started about a permanent split in the EU. Luxembourg's Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, said those countries which still believe in greater European integration should heed the message of the Irish "no" and the French and Dutch rejections of the European constitution in 2005. "Given that it is increasingly hard to get all states moving together, then probably the only thing that is left to us is a Club of the Few," Mr Juncker said. The French newspaper Le Monde also called for an "avant garde" of EU nations to push ahead alone.

The prospect of an EU "premier league" would alarm the British Government but would be hard, if not impossible, to arrange in practice. The three nations which have rejected the EU reform process are already members of the single currency "hard core". Two of them, France and the Netherlands, are founder members from 1958 and natural candidates for any "avant-garde".

In Britain, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, said it was now "highly unlikely" that the treaty would be ratified in its current form. "Tactically, I can see other European leaders saying we want a multi-speed Europe and ripping it to bits. That is a bad thing. It would be better for us to complete our parliamentary homework next week". But Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, one of his predecessors, said it was a "depressing moment" that could "be the beginning of the end of the European Union as we know it".

The Lisbon Treaty was an attempt to rescue the draft constitution destroyed in 2005 by the French and the Dutch. Its supporters say it is a limited and sensible attempt to allow the EU to operate with 27, and shortly – when Croatia joins – 28 member states. National vetoes would disappear in 50, mostly technical, policy areas. A new semi-permanent European Council president would become the visible "face" of the EU and co-ordinate the thrice-yearly summits.

Opponents claim that the treaty would be a lurch towards federalism. In theory, the new rules were to take effect next year. At the very least, they have been suspended for 12 months. European commission officials say that they can limp on with the old rules but the EU would, inevitably, become weaker and less responsive to new problems, such as those listed by Mr Miliband.