John Lichfield: With the Taoiseach in the naughty chair, this was a polite mad hatter's tea party

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European summits were never simple but they were once predictable. France and Germany agreed on everything. Britain sat in the naughty chair, which was either a noble or despicable position, depending on your viewpoint. Ireland adopted a low profile, offered its services as a go-between and scooped up more subsidies.

The EU summit which began in Brussels last night occurred in a Euro-Looking-Glass world. The British Prime Minister was the hero. The Taoiseach sat in the naughty chair. France and Germany bickered like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Chancellor Angela Merkel had scoffed at President Nicolas Sarkozy's brand-new rattle: his plan to cut VAT on fuel taxes.)

The summit had just begun when the 27 leaders adjourned for the traditional dinner: a politer version of the mad hatter's tea party. The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, in the role of the dormouse, received "sympathy" and "solidarity". This was his first EU summit. He was squashed, not into a teapot, but to the far limits of the "family" photograph. Otherwise, his fellow summiteers were frostily polite. They avoided pressing the obvious question. How did Ireland – a country whose success and identity are rooted in EU membership – come to plunge Europe into another crisis by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty?

The treaty will remain a dead letter until the Irish can be persuaded to reverse last week's decision. Mr Cowen has been invited to address this question at the next summit in October. He may have been in the naughty chair but he did not have to sit in the corner or eat with a wooden spoon.

Last night's dinner menu was in the culinary style of Slovenia, currently presiding over the EU. The leaders ate fillet of trout with "pumpkin foam", followed by rack of lamb, "rosemary infused" vegetables and "kefir" pudding, washed down by Slovenian wines.Mr Cowen sat between the Latvian and Cypriot prime ministers.

The role of Alice, the unexpectedly popular guest, was played by Gordon Brown. The PM achieved something no British leader had achieved since Edward Heath: he was the toast of the summit for pushing through Britain's ratification of Lisbon. If the Poles and Czechs can be persuaded to do the same, unspoken pressure on Ireland can grow.

There is no question (officially) of coercing the Irish to think again. However, French officials made it clear, off the record, this was what Paris hoped to achieve in its six-months presidency starting next month. Mr Cowen will be asked to suggest by October what, if anything, might persuade the Irish to vote "yes" next time.

It should be possible to frame reassuring statements which do not contradict, or unpick, the treaty. One possible "free gift" has already been identified: a permanent Irish member of the Commission. Many voters were persuaded by the wily "no" campaigners that Ireland would lose "its" member if Lisbon came into force.

Actually, it is the existing rules – under the Nice Treaty – which will force a sensible cut from 27 members to only 18. Lisbon allows for one state, one commissioner.

If this could only be made clear to the Irish, the thinking in Brussels runs, they would raise a clamour for their own commissioner and vote "yes". In other words, the EU bureaucracy may be expanded to prove the EU is responsive to public opinion. Curiouser and curiouser.

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