December 16, 2011
Nobody in their right mind wants a treaty change either at 27 or 17 at this moment of maximum vulnerability for the European idea and the prosperity of the peoples of Europe in a difficult world. Lest we forget the agony of the process a brief reminder of recent history seems in order.
The growth of the European Union over the last sixty years has been more pragmatic and flexible than historians of Europe normally concede. The official version of events depicts a series of noble treaties, giving concrete form to the European idea in each generation. In reality treaties are more usually documents consolidating current practice rather than exploring new territory. They are often initiated for short term tactical reasons. They can be blown off course by referenda, where a national public chooses to answer a question other than that which it was asked. The experience of the last ten years amply illustrates why the European political class now only approaches the task of treaty making as a last resort.
We may therefore establish a pattern in treaty making that can serve both for a warning about future treaties and an analytic tool for understanding inter-institutional power plays in the period between treaties. The full dynamics of this are on display as the leaders of Europe struggle with the problems of the euro and financial instability in the winter of 2011. Perhaps above all we should remember the immortal words, now attributed to Jean- Claude Junker “We know what to do. We just don’t know how to do it and then get re-elected”. The problem in 2011 relates to technical financial issues of fiendish complexity that are rarely understood even by the technocrats, but which are pounced on by a media and populace that has lost deference and has come to expect concealment and half-truths from its leaders.
Today, there are intriguing parallels with the situation twelve years ago which gave birth to the process that ultimately led to the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009. The Santer Commission had resigned en masse having failed to satisfy the European Parliament that its conduct on certain financial issues had been either clear or responsible. President Prodi came in as a new broom determined to restore the prestige and integrity of the European Commission in alliance with, rather than in opposition to, a newly assertive European Parliament. In tune with millennial optimism, he believed that the rise in Euroscepticism could be countered if everybody explained in clear and reasonable terms the nature of the European construction. A new treaty was to consolidate all the previous versions into one easy to read volume. Transparency and clarity were to be the watchwords. In a period when the leadership of the Member States lacked any great or credible figures the old model of a treaty re-drawn by the Member States acting alone in an Inter-Governmental Conference was to be supplemented by a Convention. The finest brains of Europe, chaired by the elegance of one of the most intellectual of French Presidents, was to respond to the mood of public confusion with vision and lucidity.
In fact the Convention produced a whole series of new ideas of varying quality and practicality, which were added to the usual mix of updating current practice and addressing current sensitivities. Unfortunately for both the peoples of Europe and their political elites the resulting Constitution was an impenetrable text. This text was then mangled following the rejection of the draft treaty by Dutch and French voters for reasons unconnected to the content of the treaty. The Dutch failure to ratify was related to immigration and a sense that the Dutch political elite had failed to listen to its electorate over many years. The French rejection was driven by a desire for revenge on a President who had been elected under strange circumstances when his second round opponent was from the Far Right rather than from the Left. Rejection by two founding Members of the Union caused panic in the corridors of both Brussels and the national capitals. The very word Constitution had to be discarded along with Flag and Anthem. The old model of intergovernmental negotiation and the need to meet national demands for sticking plaster headlines was back with a vengeance.
Eventually a text was agreed on that could be given life as the Treaty of Lisbon. It contained none of the coherence of the original document. The goal of clarity was abandoned on the altar of short term national expedience. As if this was not bad enough, the much revised text was then rejected by an Irish electorate high on the fantasy of the “Celtic Tiger” that it had been fed on for the previous decade. Further dissembling followed as an increasingly desperate collection of Prime Ministers fought to keep the show on the road. The final months after Irish approval at their second referendum were conducted under the malevolent gaze of eurosceptic presidents in Prague and Warsaw.
Treaties take at least six months to agree and at least a year to ratify. They are subject to referenda and to weak parliamentary majorities. They are a recipe for instability and the last thing that the markets in search of stability could possible desire. Looking at Dutch, Irish or Slovak politics who can say that ratification would be certain?
The Interim Report “Towards a Stronger Economic Union”, published on 6th December by President Van Rompuy, shows how revision of Protocol Number 12 and further reforms via secondary legislation could produce early certainty. I have no doubt that once the European Council have argued themselves to a standstill they will adopt this eminently sensible way forward.
A full treaty will be necessary at some stage in the future. It should come once Europe’s role in a multi-polar world has become clearer. It should come when our pre-Copenhagen fantasies have been finally blown away by reality. It should include the extension of European competence to more Foreign and Security Policy as the essential requirement for success in the harsh new global environment. It should do so not only because it is the only path to defending Europe’s interests, but also because it is the only way of keeping the British involved in the long term. Europe, including the British, will need to re-fashion its foreign policy instruments to cope with a world of competition for scarce resources and looming abrupt climate change. The current crisis centres on design faults in the euro and the need to create a fiscal union. All the evidence from previous such leaps forward under pressure indicate that they should be allowed to develop pragmatically before being consolidated in a treaty. The arrow of time points forward. We need to put down a marker for a treaty in 2017 and negotiate our way steadily towards it.
Author : Tom Spencer