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From Berlin to Lisbon: the European Union back on the road

John Palmer
26 March 2007

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 "Berlin declaration" issued by leaders of the European Union's twenty-seven member-states capped the rich symbolism of the occasion. But its real significance lies elsewhere: it suggests that, after two years of stagnation and strife, the EU show is moving back onto the road. True, early spring can be a time of disappointment and a sudden return of winter. But the evidence from the gathering is of a renewed determination to make the institutions and decision-making processes of the European Union fit for purpose.

The key words in the declaration came when the assembled government recognised that: "We must continue to renew and update the political shape of Europe. That is why, 50 years after the signing of the Treaties of Rome, we are today united in the goal of achieving a renewed common foundation for the European Union before the elections to the European Parliament in 2009. Because we know: Europe is our common future."

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union at fifty:

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 2007)

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

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

To avoid the sensibilities of some EU governments neither the "f" word (federalism) nor the "c" word ("constitution") were mentioned. To that extent the so-called European Union constitutional treaty- agreed by all twenty-five of the (then) EU member-states in October 2004 - is dead if not formally interred. However almost all of the actual, substantive changes to the way the EU functions - envisaged in the "constitution" - will now reappear at the heart of the "renewal" of the institutions.

That will entail, among other reforms, a raft of measures: a further extension to decision-making by majority vote (and thus a modest further reduction in the national veto); a new system of determining a majority in the council of ministers that gives greater weight to the size of populations; the appointment of a full-time president of the council of ministers for a two-and-a-half year period; a further extension of the powers of the directly elected European parliament to hold the executive (primarily the commission) to account; the appointment of an EU foreign minister; and the creation of an embryo of a European diplomatic service.

The detail still has to be worked out over the next six to eighteen months. At the EU summit on 21-22 June which marks the end of the current German presidency and its transfer to Portugal, the hope is that enough of the above programme can be accepted to make a formal agreement possible by the time Portugal's six-month presidency passes to Slovenia in December. Indeed there appears to be near universal support (including even in the normally recalcitrant United Kingdom) for adding two new areas to the EU's responsibility - climate change and energy.

The optimists also hope that the tricky issues around ratification of the new treaty in all twenty-seven member-states will be completed in time for the new arrangements to kick in by June 2009 when the next election to the European parliament will be held and a new commission put in place.

The springtime of reform

One important reason for the new optimism of the European reformers is that most of them are ready to abandon the notion of a "constitutional" treaty and, instead, implement the decision making changes by way of amendment to the existing Nice treaty, agreed at the December 2000 summit. This means that the ambitious project of unifying all the existing EU treaties into one comprehensive, constitutional type of agreement might be left for the future. Some look towards 2015 when the key decisions on what will almost certainly be the final enlargement of the European Union may have to be taken if promises to the countries of the western Balkans and maybe Turkey are to be honoured. At this point a fully fledged constitution may be unavoidable because of the sheer scale and complexity involved in the governance of an EU with thirty-five or more members.

Needless to say many, daunting, pitfalls remain on the road to Lisbon and beyond. Inveterate Eurosceptics and Europhobe populists will dismiss the notion of a refoundation of the EU as trickery. But provided the package of changes can be made to appear low key, the more sceptical governments may decide they can get approval through a parliamentary vote rather than by means of a referendum. They have seen how - as in France and the Netherlands- European referenda can be hijacked by those who want to use them for another purpose: to punish national governments for unpopular policies unrelated to the issues in an EU treaty.

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

Also by John Palmer in openDemocracy:

"After France: Europe's route from wreckage" (May 2005)

"The 'nation'-state is not enough"
(December 2005)

"The levels of democracy"
(January 2006)

"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)

"Germany and Europe: the pull of unity"
(16 February 2007)

The grit in London'e eye

Although the current, rightwing Czech and Polish governments would prefer to delay the planned institutional reforms until after 2009, they no longer threaten a veto. Denmark and Sweden seem likely to approve the new approach. British government ministers want to keep the decision-making timetable as far away as possible from a likely general election in late 2009 or 2010. They might therefore try and get early parliamentary approval for what they would present as minimal, "common sense" changes to the way the EU functions.

Britain was - for once - in the vanguard of those asking for tougher EU laws on carbon emissions, and a Labour government (probably led by Gordon Brown after Tony Blair's departure from the scene) may calculate it could win a convincing parliamentary majority with support from the Liberal Democrats and even some of the new and more green-oriented Conservatives.

London is likely to take a belligerent stance on two main issues. The first is not to call the new EU foreign minister by that title. However a rose by any other name will smell as sweet to those who want to see the European Union launch a fully fledged independent foreign, security and defence policy - including a willingness to part company where necessary with Washington on issues such as Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Afghanistan.

Second, the British may demand the scrapping of the charter of fundamental rights which was an intrinsic part of the draft constitutional treaty. Although it only refers to social, labour and other rights in the context of decisions taken at the EU (not the national) level, the more bellicose sections of Britain's employers have been crying "the end of the world is nigh". Such a retreat would be completely unjustified given the fact that the European Court of Justice can still rule on some of these issues under existing treaties. It would also inflame those in France who believe European integration is a means of pursuing neo-liberal economic and social policies rather than the truth, which is that it is the means of constraining neo-liberalism with policies of social cohesion and sustainable development.

A bigger problem may lie with the great majority of EU countries - eighteen of which have already ratified the constitutional treaty (two of them by referendum). These eighteen ask - with justification - why they and not the two "no"-voting states should be asked to make the concessions. What is sure is that the time is overdue to abolish the requirement of unanimity every time reforms have to be made to the way the EU functions. It is already nonsense with twenty-seven states and will be suicidal with thirty or more.

An important provision of the old treaty was the future election of presidents of the European commission through the European parliament. It is not generally appreciated that - if they can take their courage in their hands - the still evolving European political parties can put their power to elect the commission president in the hands of voters - where it rightly belongs. What they should do now is go to the electorate in 2009 not only with clear cut alternative programmes for the future course of the union but also with their proposed candidates for the commission presidency. They do not need treaty changes to take that initiative.

A key factor in deciding whether the cause of European institutional reform succeeds will be the outcome of the French presidential election in April-May 2007. This will take place only a few weeks before the crucial European council summit in Brussels in June. It will not be surprising if attention in the next few months focuses more on what is going to happen in Paris than in Brussels, Berlin, London or elsewhere.

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