Leading article: How to solve a crisis of democratic legitimacy

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They lit up the Eiffel Tower in blue and gold early yesterday morning, but no light show could distract from the painful reality that France's rotating presidency of the European Union has begun in the most inauspicious of circumstances. Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon treaty last month and yesterday's intervention from the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, who told a newspaper that for him to ratify the treaty now would be "pointless", have disrupted France's carefully laid plans for the next six months.

In truth, Mr Kaczynski's comments come as no surprise. He was always opposed to Lisbon. Mr Kaczynski is also unrepresentative of Polish opinion. His country's parliament has already ratified Lisbon and Poland's Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, is committed to pushing ahead with the treaty. Mr Kaczynski can hold the process up, but he cannot single-handedly scupper Lisbon.

Yet it would be quite wrong for France, or any EU government, to ignore the fact that Europe is going through a crisis of democratic legitimacy at the moment, symbolised by Ireland's rejection of the treaty. The question is how to respond. The very worst course of action from European governments would be to push ahead with implementing Lisbon's provisions as if nothing had happened. That would merely play into the hands of those who argue that Europe is an anti-democratic conspiracy of elites.

The initiative about how to proceed on the Lisbon agenda can only come from Dublin. If the Irish government believes it can win a re-run referendum, so much the better. If, on the other hand, it believes a re-run ought to be ruled out, then the Commission will have to go back to the drawing board. Either way, what is required now is a period of cool reflection while the Irish government makes its mind up.

But that does not mean Europe should sit on its hands for the next six months. The French government ought to concentrate on areas such as energy, climate change and agriculture where Europe can still reach agreement. EU states need to make it clear to Russia that its tactics of divide and rule on gas will no longer be tolerated. If Europe can agree bold new measures to tackle global warming, it will be in a strong position to influence the policy of the next United States president, who takes office in January. Meanwhile, France's "Mediterranean Union" project has the potential to improve relations with the Arab world.

Other EU governments, especially our own, will also have plenty to do to ensure that the increasingly protectionist and populist overtures from President Nicholas Sarkozy are resisted. Despite what M. Sarkozy has been saying recently, there is little evidence that the Irish public rejected Lisbon because the EU believes in free markets. And the proposed French immigration policy, which achieves the dubious feat of being both economically damaging and inhumane, ought to be dismantled too.

Yet the irony of the situation is that while Europe is going through this existential torture, its governments are remarkably united on some of the largest contemporary geo-political issues. The wounds opened up by the invasion of Iraq have largely healed. All states are committed to reducing carbon emissions. Anddespite the harsh economic winds buffeting the continent, most states are showing no inclination to retreat into protectionism.

It would plainly be ridiculous to argue that the European ideal is in good shape. But the economic and diplomatic union of European nation states can still be a progressive force, on the continent and in the wider world. Now is not the time for Europe's friends to despair.

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