Europe’s higher ground

About the author
John Palmer was formerly European editor of the Guardian and then Political Director of the European Policy Centre. He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Federal Trust

After six years of nervous, ill-tempered wrangling and episodic threats to wreck the entire European Union venture, a new EU reform treaty was agreed by the union's twenty-seven heads of government at their Lisbon summit on 18-19 October 2007. Now the really hard work must begin.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Among John Palmer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Europe's enlargement problem" (23 May 2006)

"Europe's foreign policy: saying ‘no' to the US?" (12 September 2006)

"A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006)

"Europe won't go away" (6 February 2007)

"From Berlin to Lisbon: the European Union back on the road" (27 March 2007)

"Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

"Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)
The new treaty will be signed in December and it is increasingly probable that it will be approved in all member-states by June 2009 when - along with the next direct elections to the European parliament - it is due to come into force. It seems only Ireland (which is constitutionally mandated to do so) will have to hold a referendum. In the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown seems likely to command a clear parliamentary majority for approval - especially given the support of the third party, the Liberal Democrats.

Any discussion of yet further treaties will now come to a halt - at least until around 2015 when decisions will have to be taken on the admission to EU membership of Turkey and the remaining countries of the western Balkans. If this final stage of classical enlargement does happen, a further (probably decisive) step to a more consistently democratic, federal European Union will probably have to be agreed as well.

A high-wire perspective

Why do Europe's political leaders engage in the politically exhausting and sometimes dangerous business of negotiating a stronger and more effective European Union? The answer is not (as Europhobic conspiracy-theorists often suppose) that they are in thrall to an obscure ideological ambition or seek to promote an idealistic federalist faith. They do so because they are attempting to confront problems - some of them deadly serious - which their states are individually incapable of tackling.

That is why the Lisbon summiteers proceeded immediately from their agreement on the new treaty to identifying a whole new range of global challenges which individual states, however large, cannot conceivably respond to on their own. These can broadly be summed up as "how to manage globalisation and not be managed by it." There is a shared sense among the EU member-states that globalisation is here to stay and can be a source of greater prosperity and also greater economic and social justice. But there is also a growing fear that unregulated globalisation could end in disaster.

This fear surfaced in Lisbon in the discussions about the new financial and investment instruments that are creating wild-west-style market behaviour, triggering the continuing crisis in the United States's sub-prime mortgage market. The EU wants far greater - legally enforceable - transparency in these "dark-side" transactions and is considering just what institutions and processes would be needed to bring about greater regulation.

openDemocracy writers track the European Union in a decisive year:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe" (30 May 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Olaf Cramme, "Europe: politics or die" (17 September 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)
As in some many other areas where the EU aspires to play a more effective global role (think of foreign policy or what follow-up there should be to the Kyoto agreement on global warming) the question is raised: "Does the European Union have the will to act in as united a way as it talks?" The new EU treaty does lay down that the European Union should represent its members as a collective entity in the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank or in the United Nations. But - in reality - that is the direction it will have to take if it wishes to achieve its goals at a global level.

So far even those member-states which are part of the single-currency eurozone do not yet really act in a consistently integrated fashion. But if they (let alone the twenty-seven EU states as a whole) are going to push for global agreements on financial markets, on climate change, on sustainable development and - above all - for a new multilateral global alternative to great-power imperialisms in the field of foreign and security policy, they will have to learn how to integrate more effectively - with or without new treaties.

A pan-European politics

The most daunting challenge of all, however, may not lie in the ambitions for a greater global role for a multilateralist European Union. It surely is to be found in bridging the yawning divide between the so-called political elites and democratic citizens. This divide - it must be insisted - is as much as the national as at the European level. It goes to the heart of the hollowing of contemporary democratic politics (declining voter participation in elections, imploding membership of political parties, a drift to a suffocating but all-inclusive political centrism) - which erodes a real sense of democratic choice and an ever-growing suspicion of the democratic political process itself.

The irony is that although the gap between the EU institutions and voters is massive, the space does exist at the European level to explore a greater range of genuine democratic political alternatives.

One reason is that an EU of twenty-seven member-states (and likely to grow larger) is less inhibited by global pressures from exploring different ways of relating economic growth and competitiveness to social cohesion, sustainable development and non-profit-based forms of enterprise. In the years to come it may be that the liveliest political debates will take place both at the "sub-national" (regional) level and at the European level.

This may also be the only way the European Union can grow authentic political leaderships capable of creating new compacts with voters. A first step in this direction may be taken if the European parties fighting the elections to the European parliament in 2009 insist on putting their own candidates for the next president of the European commission to voters for their approval.

Without the emergence of such leaderships the European project will be dangerously dependent on the sclerotic, essentially part-time, leadership they get from national governments and national political leaders who find it so hard to respond to the realities of the modern world.