European Union foreign ministers insisted on Monday that the EU reform treaty was alive despite Ireland's "No" vote but conceded they had no quick fixes for rescuing it.
Their monthly meeting in Luxembourg was a first opportunity for EU officials to start picking up the pieces after Thursday's Irish referendum cast doubt over the survival of a pact meant to bolster the EU's economic and political weight in the world.
EU leaders will want to hear from Prime Minister Brian Cowen at a summit in Brussels later this week whether he sees any hope of winning a new referendum, a step Irish officials have not ruled out but which they believe is a high-risk strategy.
"The people's decision has to be respected and we have to chart a way through ... It is far too early for proffering any solutions or proposals," Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said on arrival. "There are no quick fix solutions."
Not taking 'No' for an answer
But for the moment, Dublin's 26 partners in the bloc are not taking "No" for an answer and most insist that ratification of the project should continue elsewhere in the bloc.
"The treaty is not dead. The EU is in constant crisis management -- we go from one crisis to another and finally we find a solution," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb told reporters, noting the bloc had always pushed ahead with integration despite past rebuffs from voters.
"I believe the European spirit is strong ... and we'll see more ratifications," said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
He stressed it was up to Ireland to propose ways out of the impasse: "I don't have any solutions."
"Life has to continue," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, whose role was to have been beefed up with a real foreign service under the Lisbon Treaty, which will not now come into force as planned next January 1.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he did not see any direct impact on the bloc's expansion plans into southeastern Europe from the Irish vote. Croatia hopes to conclude accession talks next year to be the 28th EU member.
EU officials say the hope is that if all other countries back the treaty by December, the Irish can be persuaded to try again in exchange for assurances on issues such as preserving a member of the European Commission for each member country and retaining national vetoes over tax legislation indefinitely.
Cowen said Dublin's EU partners must help otherwise the treaty cannot come into force, depriving the bloc of a long-term president, revamped decision-making structures in Brussels and more effective foreign policy and defense arrangements.
A senior EU official said if Cowen tells EU leaders he cannot win a new referendum, the "plan C" alternative could be to put limited reforms into the accession treaty of Croatia, likely to join in 2010 or 2011.
That might modify the voting system and the distribution of European parliament seats, but it could not include the whole range of reforms defeated in last Thursday's Irish vote.
Opposition to the treaty among Irish voters focused on suspicion of Brussels and of Ireland's political elite.
Meanwhile, a potentially damaging "who lost Ireland" row threatens to erupt after French ministers accused the executive European Commission of insensitivity to fishermen, truckers and cattle breeders hit by soaring fuel and food prices.
French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier told Europe 1 radio Brussels should have been more responsive to their problems rather than rejecting out of hand President Nicolas Sarkozy's call to use extra tax receipts on petrol to cushion the cost to the worst affected sectors.
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on Friday there should be no hunt for a scapegoat, in what some saw as a pre-emptive strike against such criticism from France, which takes on the EU presidency in two weeks' time.
Commission Vice-President Margot Wallstrom said the EU executive had commissioned a survey to try and find out why the Irish had rejected the text.