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Europe’s next steps

John Palmer
26 June 2007

Shakespeare would surely have described the European council meeting in Brussels on 21-22 June 2007, and the new reform treaty it finally approved in outline, as Much Ado about Rather Little.

Rather little - but more than nothing. The new European Union treaty does make possible a number of the essential reforms which the union needs in order to be capable of facing immediate global challenges and further enlargement, and indeed without which it would stagnate and might even gradually disintegrate over the years ahead.

Perhaps the most important of these changes are those which strengthen the capacity of the EU to pursue a more independent foreign and security policy. The creation of an EU foreign minister (with the title "high representative for foreign policy and security") who will also be a vice-president of the European commission and who will have the support of an embryo EU diplomatic service (to be called the "external action service") is significant. But capacity is one thing: whether or not the political will exists among the member-states who will still determine policy to take advantage of that enhanced capacity is another.

The creation of a president of the council is a useful step but not one likely to transform the political realities of how member-states function at EU level. Interestingly the way is left open for a future merger of the offices of president of the council and president of the commission. The extension of decision by qualified majority voting (QMV) affects relatively few major policy areas with the exception of some aspects of justice and internal affairs. These are precisely the areas where the United Kingdom has been given "opt in" rights when it wishes to take part. It may do so more often in practice than it is letting on at present because of London's concerns about more coordinated action on crime, migration and terrorism.

The EU will be given a "legal personality" (over British objections) but this will change little in terms what happens in practice. It may get its first outing over a possible successor treaty to the Kyoto climate-change pact.

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)

After the hype

None of the changes to the EU voting system or the way the institutions will work in future provides the slightest justification for a referendum to approve what are a series of technical amendments to existing EU treaties. These amendments - no more than the previous, misnamed "constitutional" treaty which was approved by eighteen member-states but vetoed by two - involve no significant change to what passes for a British constitution. The incoming British prime minister Gordon Brown is dropping large hints that he wishes to see "constitutional reform" - maybe this will make the task of negotiating these future EU treaties somewhat easier.

The overhyped theatricality surrounding the negotiations illustrates the continuing incapacity of some national government leaders to come to terms with the supranational politics needed to bring effective governance to the process of globalisation. The absurd posturing of the Polish and British leaders illustrates with particular force how great the gulf is between the new global economic and political realities and the myopic preoccupations of domestic politicians.

The Polish prime minister's justification for a new voting system as compensation for Poland's loss of population as a result of the horrors of the second world war was positively surreal - but no more than the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown campaign to exclude the British people from the legal provisions of the EU charter of fundamental rights. Among the populations of the twenty-seven EU countries only the British now have the privilege of being "protected" from the legal scrutiny of the European court of justice if their state authorities should in future violate existing British laws and also charter provisions - which range from a ban on torture and arbitrary arrest to the rights of working people to defend their interests through strike action.

Some very tricky drafting issues remain to be tackled by the incoming Portuguese presidency to ensure that the intergovernmental conference in late (probably October) 2007 converts the Brussels mandate into a firm agreement. But the odds must now be on the treaty amendments coming into force in time for the European parliament elections in June 2009. It will be interesting to see whether those elections are also used by the European parties to make a fight over the issue of who should be elected as the next president of the commission and around what kind of programme.

The next priorities

What matters now is for the European Union to get to work on issues that only Europeans as a whole can tackle. There are three immediate priorities: foreign policy, climate change, and energy security.

The first and most urgent priority is the need for the European Union to make clear to the (hopefully soon departed) American neo-conservatives - but also to whoever forms the succeeding United States administration - that the Europeans are in future going to speak and act with far greater independence in the desperate search to avoid utter catastrophe in the middle east.

This means too that the struggle for a serious EU foreign and security policy must now spread to practical questions. The temptation to try to starve the Hamas regime in Gaza into cowed submission would be a disaster. The EU should lend its support to the creation of a new Palestinian authority accepted in all parts of the occupied territories. Israel should be encouraged to negotiate a peaceful agreement with Syria - no matter what the objections from Washington. The EU foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, should be given greater support for his efforts to negotiate a nuclear-energy agreement with Tehran. The EU should back a clear withdrawal timetable in Iraq. It should also tell Nato to distance itself from the disastrous military strategy US forces are pursuing in Afghanistan. A more self-confident assertion of its independence in foreign policy would do a great deal to strengthen popular support for continuing European integration.

Also in openDemocracy on 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)

Mats Engstrőm, "Europe's green power" (26 March 2007)

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

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

A second priority is to turn the ambitious commitments made on tackling climate change into concrete decisions. The European council in March 2007 spoke about decisions taken on the basis of unanimity, but the only available legal base for measures to tackle CO2 emissions is through QMV. It will be clear by the end of 2007 how serious member-states are in really tackling climate change.

A third priority is tackling energy security through shared sovereignty - as is hinted at in those European council understandings designed to reassure the Poles and others about how the EU would respond to Russian bullying over gas supplies. The question remains: can energy infrastructure, internal energy liberalisation, energy sustainability and security of supplies really be tackled by largely rhetorical intergovernmental cooperation? The evidence thus far is negative. The conclusion might be that energy has to follow climate change as an issue to be dealt with primarily through EU law.

The cost of leadership

Linked to all of this is the looming issue of how the EU should be not merely reconcile but actively integrate the major priorities of economic policy - growth and employment, competitiveness, innovation, social cohesion and sustainable development. There is urgent need of a conceptual breakthrough as to how to confront these ever more demanding and equally pressing challenges.

Perhaps the euro group, which will expand to embrace Cyprus and Malta (probably in January 2008), will give a lead on these issues as well as concrete measures to ensure far closer coordination of national economic policy. Thus far the group's rhetoric has not been matched by concrete achievement in terms of leadership on such questions.

The next explosive EU rendezvous may be to determine the future of the EU budget. The signals are mixed. Common agricultural policy reform looks likely to be taken to its concluding stages over the next few years, not least because of the change in the domestic priorities of the French president. But the pressures from climate change, energy - and perhaps most of all research and innovation - point to the need for a substantially greater EU budget, in whatever form that eventually takes. Europe needs to rise to this challenge too.

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