The results of the European Parliament elections were only a little less predictable than the fact that the total voter turnout should have fallen once again to just over 40 percent. It is true that this would be regarded as quite a healthy voting record in a mid-term congressional election in the United States. But it is deeply troubling for the European Parliament which will – when, as is now very likely, the Lisbon Treaty comes into force – play an even more important role in the lives of the 750 million voters in the EU in the future than it has in the past.
Europe lost and found, Gisela Stuart
The European parliament: problem, and solution, Anand Menon
In broad brush terms the centre-right European People’s Party – the largest in the European Parliament – has advanced, even after allowing for the defection of the British Tories to an alliance with cranky right-wing conservatives in Poland and the Czech Republic. The centre-left Party of European Socialists has lost substantial ground – mainly in Germany, France, Italy and the UK - and the Liberals have marked time. The Greens and, in some countries, both the extreme right and the far left have made gains – including the British National Party (BNP) in Britain.
One consequence of the results in that the incumbent President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, will probably now be reappointed by the new Parliament (without opposition). But a key question, at a time of profound economic crisis, is how it was that the centre-right government parties in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere were able to steal so many of the policy clothes of the social democrats – especially on economic issues such as public spending and stricter financial regulation – and emerge stronger in this election.
This crisis is unlikely to slow down the transfer of decision making responsibilities by Member States to the European Union. This is in spite of the virtual disappearance of a strongly Euro-federalist political current in the EU and the yawning gap of credibility between the EU institutions and important swathes of public opinion. Governments know that EU unity is needed in piloting a way out of a decade of low growth and high unemployment. The current debate on stronger EU regulation of the financial system is an obvious case in point.
However, this only highlights the profound contradiction between the continuing trend towards closer European cooperation and integration and the widespread doubts about how to build an effective democracy at the European level. Unless the decline in voter participation (down to 43 percent this year) in European elections is reversed doubts about the legitimacy of the European Union's institutions will grow, even as its importance continues to expand.
The current debate has revealed a vogue for mild euro-scepticism (or at least Euro-Parliamentary scepticism). This has been reflected in some recent articles published by openDemocracy. In her commentary on the European Parliament elections, Gisela Stuart rightly points out that MEPs and the European political parties they form remain accountable primarily to their constituent national leaderships and have failed to establish themselves clearly on the political horizons of European voters.
Stuart is also right to say that voters taking part in European Parliament elections are not being given a real choice about who should lead the EU’s supra-national executive – the Commission. Unless and until voters are able to choose not only between rival policy platforms offered by the emerging European political parties but also choose between the political personalities who are proposed to head the Commission, readiness to vote in European elections will continue to atrophy. The result will be a continued decline in voter turnout and, consequently, a disproportionate over-representation of extreme right wing populist, xenophobic and racist parties.
Unfortunately, Gisela Stuart’s proposed solutions to these problems fall well short of what is required. She says that in future all new legislative proposals should pass the “subsidiarity” test: that is they should justify why action at the European rather than the national level is necessary. But this is already the case. Indeed under changes which will come in with the likely implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, national Parliament will be given even greater powers to question and even block legislative proposals which they believe violate subsidiarity. Moreover the public will also be able to require the Commission to consider proposals for new laws if they can demonstrate sufficient support.
In his analysis, Anand Menon, suggests a far more drastic solution to the ills of the European Parliament: shutting down the entire institution. In its place he proposes that democratic control of decisions by the European Commission and – more importantly – the Council of Ministers representing the 27 ember States – be transferred to national Parliaments. To be fair Menon acknowledges the importance and the quality of the members of the European Parliament and even says that they are “far more effective than virtually any Parliament in any domestic setting.”
In spite of this, Menon advocates a return to the situation where national Parliaments nominate representatives to the job of the European Parliament. It is not entirely clear from his article that Anand Menon has studied what happened when such a system existed – as, of course, it did before direct elections were introduced in 1979. This was a time when the volume and importance of the business handled by the then European Community was a fraction of what the European Union is responsible for today.
As a journalist, I covered the meetings of the appointed European Assembly in Luxembourg during those years. The experiment was, by almost universal consent, judged to be a total failure. It simply was not possible for over-burdened members of national Parliaments to give the attention necessary to effectively hold the Commission and the other EU institutions to account.
Many appointed national MPs regarded their periodic trips to the old assembly as little more than a “freebie” and they had little opportunity and interest in trying to understand the wider panoply of interests which drives politics in the different European countries. Consequently, they never developed the knowledge and expertise needed to hold the EU executives (the Commission and the Council) to account.
That is why elections were introduced and why even Menon concedes that his recommended “return to the future” is most unlikely. More worrying is his under-playing of the process by which the EU – and especially the European parliament – continues to acquire greater responsibilities. Of course he is right that national governments will not agree to transfer decision-making powers to the EU simply to give a bigger role to MEPs. Member states do not transfer competences from the national to the European level out of any kind of euro-idealism or federalist commitment.
National governments agree to transfer more and more issues to the European level because they have learned (often the hard way) that some of the most important challenges they face simply cannot be solved at national level. Indeed as the case of justice, internal security and climate change indicate, they also eventually accept that mere improved cooperation between EU states does not always do the trick and that some agreement on shared sovereignty is unavoidable.
There is one increasingly important area of policy where neither national Parliaments nor the European Parliament are really able to hold governments to account – common EU foreign, security and defence policy. This is primarily an area of inter-governmental cooperation but the future appointment of a de facto EU “foreign minister” with a developing EU diplomatic service reflects a profound change. Only by uniting the roles of MEPs and national MPs – perhaps through a hybrid Parliamentary body including both – will governments be made answerable for decisions in this increasingly important area. This is why, whatever politicians say, the European institutional debate will never completely go away.
There can be no denying the somewhat surreal nature of the efforts being made to persuade the people of the Republic of Ireland to approve the European Union's Lisbon treaty in a second referendum, now likely to be held in October 2009. The clear "no" majority in Ireland's first referendum to approve the treaty on 12 June 2008 came as a shock to most if not all of the other twenty-six EU countries. With ratification now virtually complete in the rest of the EU, the Irish veto has put the whole process of reforming the way the union functions into cold storage.
John Palmer is a member of
the governing board of the European
Among John Palmer's articles in openDemocracy:
"Europe's enlargement problem" (23 May 2006)
"A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006
"Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)
"Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)
Meanwhile, a number of large-scale issues and events have emerged or become more acute since discussions about a new constitutional treaty for Europe began - global economic crisis, severe threats of climate change, dangerous regional conflicts, challenging geopolitical shifts, prospects for significant change in United States policy under a new president. All are stretching or will stretch to the limit the capacity of the union to react.
The votes and the fears
But if the Irish "no" was a rude awakening, even more so were the reasons the traditionally very pro-European Irish had for rejecting the treaty (see Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits", 13 June 2008). There is shared agreement on both sides of the argument a number of key issues was decisive in the referendum outcome. These included fears surrounding the possible effects of the treaty:
* that Irish military neutrality might have to be abandoned (and, related to this, that young Irish men and women might in future be conscripted into a "European army")
* that Ireland would lose the right to set its own corporate tax rates
* that Ireland would have to accept "alien" moral values such as abortion rights being imposed on them
* that Ireland would be deprived of the right to have its "own" member of the European commission.
The array of anti-Lisbon-treaty campaigners - ranging from far-right Catholic fundamentalists and neo-conservatives to sections of the far left and the nationalists of Sinn Féin - successfully convinced a majority of Irish voters that some or all of these threats were more or less at the heart of the treaty. Only by rejecting the treaty, the argument ran, could Ireland's neutrality, fiscal autonomy and moral values be protected. Some of the "no" activists added a social tinge, that the Lisbon treaty represented a move away from EU policies that had guaranteed workers' employment rights.
openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:
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)
Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)
Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)
Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)
Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)
Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)
In response, the weak and somewhat perfunctory campaign of the Fianna Fail government of the new taoiseach Brian Cowen - supported by almost all the main opposition parties - protested that none of this was true. They insisted that the Lisbon treaty contained no provisions that in any way threatened Irish neutrality, compromised Irish fiscal autonomy or undermined the state's right to decide its own laws on ethical issues. They also pointed out that the charter of fundamental rights was part of the treaty and would strengthen those campaigning for improved rights for workers or other social groups. Finally they said that the move to reduce the number of commissioners had nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty but had already been agreed by all member-states, including Ireland, when the Nice treaty (2001) had been approved.
These protestations have had little impact on the "no" movement - increasingly led by Declan Ganley, a British-educated multi-millionaire. He now plans to convert his Libertas movement into a political party by linking up with hard-right Eurosceptic parties in other EU countries, to fight the direct elections to the European parliament in June 2009.
The fog of agreement
In addition to their strong if ineffective arguments against the "no" campaigners, the pro-EU parties in Ireland had a fallback position: that if the Irish people refused to believe their claims about the Lisbon treaty, they would get the other EU governments to sign up to a series of clear-cut declarations on the contested issues (among them conscription, tax autonomy, and abortion) to set voters' minds at rest. The "no" campaigners responded in characteristic fashion by raising the stakes, saying they would not accept mere declarations by EU leaders: nothing less than legally binding protocols attached to the Lisbon treaty would suffice.
The trouble is that such legally binding additions to the treaty would necessitate a complete rerun of the protracted and complicated process in each of the other twenty-six European Union countries (see Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary", 21 June 2008).
Thus, when the EU heads of government assembled for their summit in Brussels on 11-12 December 2008, they adopted a way forward that accommodated the particularities of the Irish debate: namely, that legally binding assurances on neutrality, tax and other matters would either be included in the next treaty in 2010 (required to approve Croatia's entry into the EU, and which will have to be ratified by all member-states), or by a further, separate legally binding agreement.
It is a bizarre situation: one where all the governments of the European Union will legally bind themselves not to impose on Ireland measures which none of them ever had the slightest intention of doing in the first place, and for which no provision is made in the Lisbon treaty.
The summit in Brussels agreed to a further move, namely to defer indefinitely plans to introduce a smaller, more effective and more streamlined European commission. This will mean that all member-states in the enlarged union will continue to have a commissioner of "their own". But the fact that members of the commission have to swear an oath that they will not be advocates of the national interest of their country of origin, but rather of the collective European interest, seems to have gone unnoticed. After all, the job of national advocacy is the responsibility of national governments which form the EU's council of ministers.
The core and the periphery
Will these measures work in the sense of helping persuading Irish voters to agree to ratify the treaty in a second referendum? The most recent opinion poll in Ireland shows a swing sufficient to produce a small "yes" majority. But the populist "no" campaigners are confident that they can continue to exploit the fears of people who have read little or nothing of the treaty but who are increasingly sceptical about politicians as a whole and their governments. In the June 2008 vote, the opponents of Lisbon had the great advantage of a slovenly and complacent "yes" campaign. Next time, supporters of Ireland's place at the heart of Europe will have to fight for their political lives.
They have one advantage. There is a growing realisation in Ireland of the possible consequences of a return to power of the Conservative Party in Britain after a 2010 general election - as may still on balance be likely, despite a revival in Labour prime minister Gordon Brown's political fortunes. If this happens, and in circumstances where the Lisbon treaty is not yet in place, the Conservatives intend to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the European Union. The result may be to detach the United Kingdom - assuming it stays united - from some of the core European Union policies.
Ireland, faced with this prospect, will have some very difficult choices to make between a future as part of a core Europe, or joining a new semi-detached and London-centred periphery. For Ireland to return to the British orbit (and perhaps rejoin the Commonwealth) would be a strange victory for Sinn Fein and other anti-British nationalists. It is a small indication of how the stakes for Ireland, and for the rest of Europe, are about to get even higher.
John Palmer reviews What's Wrong With the European Union and How to Fix it by Simon Hix.
(Hix, 2008, Polity Press, 228pp)
In the midst of what has been a largely introverted - even turgidly morbid - debate about the future of the European Union following, the "No" vote outcome in Ireland's referendum on the EU Lisbon Treaty, the publication of a book which grapples with just why voter malaise with the EU has become such a problem is a healthy antidote. What's Wrong with the European Union and How to Fix it by Professor Simon Hix of the London School of Economics challenges much conventional wisdom by insisting that the EU suffers from too little politics - not too much.
At the heart of Hix's analysis is a conviction that it is long overdue for the peoples of the EU to be given a far greater voice in shaping the political future of the Union and the political character of its leadership. Hix believes that with - or without - the Lisbon Treaty - there should be far greater and more transparent choice about who should become the next President of the European Commission - the key executive body of the EU. This - he rightly believes - will encourage the political parties to openly contest each other's programmes for handling the current economic, social, environmental and other challenges facing the Europe in an ever more inter-dependent world.
John Palmer (London, author): This time it really is serious. The rejection by a majority of Irish people voting in the referendum to ratify the European Union Treaty of Lisbon has thrown not merely the fate of the treaty but the longer term prospects for European integration into the unknown. At the very least it will mean that most of the elementary reforms the EU needs to manage its affairs with an ever growing membership and an ever expanding array of global challenges will have to be put on hold – maybe for years.
As a highly embarrassed Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, publicly accepted the verdict of the Irish referendum, a total of 18 of the 27 EU Member States had already approved the Lisbon Treaty through their national Parliaments. All the other countries – seemingly including the British – have now pledged themselves to continue with the ratification. By the end of the summer there is every prospect that 26 of the 27 will have approved the Lisbon Treaty.
On New Year's Day, 1 January 2008, the presidency of the European Union will pass for the first time ever to one of the so-called "new member-states" from central and eastern Europe - specifically from the Balkans. Slovenia takes over the running of the EU affairs until 30 June 2008 when the baton passes to France. The Slovenian presidency comes at a critical time in the affairs of the union, on the heels of the Lisbon agreement in December to sign the reform treaty, as the economic clouds gather across the globe and as Kosovo - and the Balkans regions generally - confronts the EU with some daunting challenges.
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.
With only twenty-four hours to go before the start of the crucial summit of European Union heads of state and government in Brussels on 21-22 June 2007 - intended to agree important reforms to the way the EU functions - the British government's Eurodiplomacy has assumed a truly bizarre character. Even diplomats and politicians in other EU capitals well seasoned in the arcane ways of European negotiations have rubbed their eyes in amazement at the contortions of British government emissaries as they perform u-turn and volte face manoeuvres on key features of a new EU reform treaty.
The popping of champagne corks, the concerts and the speeches in Berlin on the weekend of 24-25 March 2007 were designed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and with it a remarkable half-century of European integration and unification.
The momentum behind closer European integration may have weakened but the creation and development of transnational economic and political communities is becoming very much the fashion in many parts of the world.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has decided on the creation of a free-trade area and has even set the goal of extending this to Japan, China and South Korea.