Europe leaves behind the era of treaty change

Europe leaves behind the era of treaty change

Bulletin article
01 October 2009

Ireland’s decisive yes to the Lisbon treaty is likely to spur Poland and – after some delay – the Czech Republic to ratify. The Lisbon treaty will probably enter into force early next year, and that is good news for the EU, in three ways.

First, the EU will move on from a quarter century of almost continuous argument about treaties, institutions and procedures. The Lisbon treaty will be the last major treaty for a generation. The difficulties of getting every member-state to ratify each new treaty are so immense that even the most federalist governments are unwilling to call for another one. Having spent too much time and energy on institutional reform, EU leaders will now focus on real problems in the real world, like how to achieve a good deal on climate change in Copenhagen, how to stabilise the EU’s troubled neighbourhood, how to handle a resurgent Russia, how to combat illegal migration, and how to maintain an open global trading system.

This shift of priorities will bring a second benefit, by weakening the eurosceptics. Their best argument is that the EU is obsessed with process and boring institutions rather than genuine problems. If and when the EU is seen to concentrate on the kinds of issue that voters worry about, more people – even in Britain – will start to respect it.

The third gain is that the reforms promised by the Lisbon treaty should improve the EU’s ramshackle institutions. A single High Representative will speak for the EU on foreign policy, instead of three (the High Representative, the commissioner for external relations and the foreign minister of the country with the rotating presidency). A permanent president will take over the chairing of the European Council (the summits of heads of government) from the prime minister of the rotating presidency, and represent the EU at the highest levels. And in areas like asylum, illegal migration and police co-operation, the switch to majority voting will lead to speedier decisions (though Britain and Ireland have an opt-out from these policies).

Even and EU endowed with the Lisbon treaty will face huge challenges. Three are particularly pressing. One is making a success of the new institutions. The new president and High Representative will not add value unless the EU chooses talented, experienced politicians who can communicate well with Europeans and people elsewhere. They must get on with each other (and Commission President José Manuel Barroso) and the heads of government. They must be modest enough not to provoke fears of empire building in national capitals but strong enough to offer leadership and ideas, help to forge a consensus and, when necessary, knock heads together.

The EU will find it hard to build a successful External Action Service (EAS), a new institution consisting of parts of the Commission and the Council of Ministers secretariat, plus seconded national diplomats. Its task will be to provide high-quality analysis to the High Representative and the foreign ministers, so that they can more easily agree on common policies. The EAS will not succeed if its inevitable turf wars with other EU institutions are allowed to escalate, and unless national governments lend it their best and brightest diplomats (if William Hague becomes UK foreign secretary, will he be willing to do that?).

The second challenge is that the economic crisis may yet provoke serious rifts among the member-states. Over the past year the EU has performed respectably, its governments taking common approaches to bank bail-outs and stimulus packages, and more recently agreeing on new rules for regulating financial markets. The singlemarket is intact. But the tensions are evident between those (like France and Germany) who blame lax financial regulation in Anglo-Saxon countries for much of the crisis, and those (like Britain) who think that countries running massive current account surpluses are at least partly to blame. The more unemployment rises, the stronger will be the calls in France (and elsewhere) for EU rules on competition policy and state aid to be relaxed so that governments can bolster national champions. Will Barroso’s new team of commissioners stand up to big member-states that try to undermine the single market? Hopefully Angela Merkel’s new government, including the market-friendly Free Democrats, will strengthen the hand of those who want EU rules enforced.

The final challenge is Britain, which is likely to have its most eurosceptic government ever before mid-2010. David Cameron’s Conservatives have not yet defined their EU policies but may try to renegotiate parts of the Lisbon treaty (by opting out of social policy and judicial co-operation), pull out of the institutions that run EU defence policy or possibly even hold some sort of referendum. Their decision to leave the European Peoples’ Party has already annoyed the two most powerful figures in Europe, Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. The more eurosceptic the Conservatives’ policies, the more British influence in the EU will wane.

One consequence of Britain’s self-marginalisation will be renewed Franco-German leadership of the EU – and when Paris and Berlin set the agenda, the results are not always beneficial. Another consequence will be mounting concern in Washington. The Obama administration wants Britain to be at the heart of EU decision-making, since it can be counted upon to promote the free-trading and Atlanticist policies the Americans like.

Cameron will be under huge pressure to take a hard line on Europe – from much of the British media, most of his party members and many of his newly elected MPs. Hopefully he will see the bigger picture and resist that pressure. With treaty change off the agenda, Europe has a great opportunity to move beyond sterile institutional debates. When the Conservatives consider how Britain can best fulfil its objectives in areas like climate change, energy security or market access in China, they will see that they need the co-operation of EU governments and institutions. They will also discover that on many key issues the centre-right governments that hold power in most member-states agree with them. The opportunity is Cameron’s for the taking.

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