Why all the angst?

Why all the angst?

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
18 October 2007

As EU leaders meet to agree a new reform treaty in Lisbon this week, I am struck by the level of angst in Britain over what, to my mind, represents a fantastic negotiating success. Paranoia and second-guessing over the treaty's implications for Britain dominate a media debate that only occasionally touches on fact. By contrast, Britain's negotiators are confident and upbeat. For them, it has been a good day at the office. It is the other countries that are less than happy.

Most are disappointed because the EU constitution, which this treaty replaces, is lost. The 18 countries that ratified it, some by referendums, were forced to ditch it after French and Dutch referendums in 2005. Italy, meanwhile, goes to this week's summit unhappy that the treaty reduces the number of MEPs it has in the European parliament. The Poles want countries to have more power to block decisions. Austria wants to save its medical schools from influxes of foreign students. And Bulgaria hints darkly it might even veto the treaty if it has to spell the euro with a "u" instead of a "v", the Cyrillic way.

But the reform treaty cannot be an answer to everybody's problems. The EU negotiated it to be able to work better after enlarging to 27 member states. The treaty will establish simpler, clearer rules for decision-making; streamline the EU's foreign policy machinery; and allow for more cooperation against terrorism, crime and illegal immigration. This is an updating treaty. It does not upset the balance of power between the EU member states and the Union's main institutions - the European commission, parliament and court of justice.

By any analysis, it was Britain that made the strongest demands during the negotiations - and obtained everything it wanted. As one senior German politician put it recently: Britain "dined out" three times, defending "red lines" in foreign policy and defence, tax and benefits and justice policy against countries which would have preferred integration to go further. And this negotiation was not simply about Britain stopping developments it did not like; the UK got plenty of things it wanted too: more votes in the council, reform of the EU's rotating presidency system to something more long term, a slimmed down European commission, proper powers for national parliament to monitor the EU, and so on.

First, British diplomats dominated the European convention that drafted the constitutional treaty. The result was it transferred few new powers to the EU and contained various safety clauses. Then, the UK successfully argued that the moribund constitution be abandoned despite the number of EU countries that had already ratified it. So the member states once again ended up agreeing with a modest, amending treaty. Finally, the UK secured further optouts and special declarations that nail down questions about sovereignty (but, it must be said, give the country less room for manoeuvre in some future negotiations). Sometimes the UK diplomats went too far: they almost killed off some sensible ideas on strengthening foreign policy coordination when the domestic debate became too heated.

No matter where you come from, each country has its pet fears - some rational, many irrational - about the EU. Any EU treaty, whatever its content, becomes a symbol of these anxieties. The British suspect labour laws will be made less liberal; the French worry workers will have weaker rights. Poland fears the EU will bring abortion in by the back door; Sweden frets its progressive family law will be undermined. Ireland watches its step lest the EU make it join Nato; Denmark worries the EU is out to get Nato. None of these doomsday scenarios has any real prospect of coming true. Nor do they have any basis in this latest reform treaty. Yet they will be key factors in the ratification debates in all the countries I mention above. So it is important to see the difference between national sensitivity and national sovereignty and not to allow the former dominate our thinking.

After the summit, parts of the media, the trade unions, a group of Labour MPs and other assorted lobby groups will join the Conservative party in favour of forcing a parliamentary vote in favour of a referendum on the treaty. Ignore the contorted arguments from either side. This debate is really about whether Britain is happy to be a member of the EU, not a fundamental loss of sovereignty. It is a debate worth having in those terms. It would offer an opportunity to reflect on the benefits and costs of membership, and to escape nonsense arguments over a minor but necessary treaty in which Britain has advanced its interests.