According to a number of senior sources in various institutions, there are three deadlines for the ratification of the treaty. Two can be let slide, but the last one can’t.
The first is the European Parliament elections next June. To meet this deadline, a second referendum would have to be held next spring. It’s the preference of many, including the French president, but few expect this deadline to be met.
The second deadline is the appointment of the new European Commission in the autumn of 2009. This is more complicated; under existing rules stipulated in the Nice Treaty, the number of commissioners must be reduced after 2009.
However, some senior sources in Brussels have suggested that this deadline could also slide if all European leaders agreed to it. But that would only happen if there was firm agreement that the third deadline would be met.
By late spring 2010, Britain will have a new government and on current trends, it will be a Conservative administration led by David Cameron.
Cameron and his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, have been very clear - Hague said it again last week - that if the Lisbon Treaty was not in force if and when the Conservative government takes office, there would be a referendum on the treaty in Britain and the Tories would campaign for a No vote.
The No side would win and the treaty would be dead. This would almost certainly lead to a radical change in European structures. Unwilling to accommodate an increasingly Eurosceptic Britain, and with their hopes of a more unitary voice for the EU in world affairs dashed by the defeat of Lisbon, pro-integration countries would push ahead, leaving Ireland and Britain - and perhaps, sundry eastern and central European countries - in the slow lane.
Aside from being a fundamental alteration to the shape of Europe, this would leave Ireland facing a choice between two of our biggest trading partners, Britain and the EU. Many in Brussels are determined to avoid this threat. But to do so, they either need the treaty in place, or a decision to proceed without Ireland. This is the deadline that they cannot let slide.
As one senior EU official put it: ‘‘A treaty ratified by the UK is worth a lot more now. . . a British Yes is worth more than an Irish No.”
What they haven't bargained for is an election in the UK earlier than June 2010. They look on Gordon Brown's current difficulties with undisguised horror as they know what an early election would mean for the Lisbon Treaty. Death.