Why the Treaty of Lisbon spells the end of the United States of Europe.
By Idriss Fofana
December 1st 2009 was supposed to represent the advent of a new Europe, united not only economically but also- and more importantly- politically. In 1990, when French president Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl laid out their vision for the future of the European Union, it was clear that they envisioned that one day a United States of Europe would emerge. Twenty years later that dream seems unattainable. National ambitions and constitutional rigidities have placed the brakes on any further European integration, however, the Treaty of Lisbon still has a small chance at success if the new European leaders project a clear authority structure to Europeans.
Ever since the culmination of European economic integration with the introduction of the Euro and the formation of the Eurozone, reinforcing the political authority of the European Union has been a primary concern for the member states. Indeed, the successes of the economic union were an indispensable contributor to the support for a political union.
A number of concerns have also placed the formation of a political union high on the agenda of European leaders. First among these, is a concern that the rise of developing states like China and India has, and will continue, to undermine the influence of European states in global affairs. Fears of European decline have failed to muster either popular support or the political will to construct a genuine political union.
A closer look at the post-War history of Europe, however, indicates that these fears have been displaced in the current context. While European powers do face the arrival of new global powers, Europe remains far more influential on the global stage than it was for much of the Cold War. Indeed, the fall of the Soviet Union returned Europe to the center of global politics, but in the process, it deprived the continent of one of the driving motors of European integration.
While the notion that only a treaty ratified through referenda can be valid is overstated, the ratification process, as well as the recent European parliamentary elections, reaffirm the impression that Europeans have fallen out of love with the EU. This disenchantment is driven first and foremost by the concern that the EU remains a fundamentally undemocratic organism without any true accountability to citizens.
Firstly, the Union is now simply too large to depend on the leadership of Franco-German cooperation. Although the Treaty of Lisbon overcomes an important obstacle by replacing the individual right to veto of each country with a vote by qualified majority, the size of the Union has introduced new players to the discussion. In the past, agreements relied largely on reconciling French, German and British interests. As the primary beneficiaries of a consolidated Europe, France and Germany often struck agreements to overcome British reluctance. Now new rifts have appeared between the three large nations and new members to the East. Add to that disagreements on the degree to which the European Union should act as a counterweight to the United States. In short, Europe has become multipolar. As a result, Europe’s much heralded new common foreign policy is likely to limit itself to humanitarian issues much in the vein of the role of the United Nations.
None of the three major European powers are willing to abandon their own national aspirations on the international stage in favor of a common European foreign policy. Nicolas Sarkozy’s push to create the Union of the Mediterranean was a clear indication that France remains tied to her national interest and that she knows full well that the EU has little more to offer her at this stage. Germany, for her part, has redoubled its role as an independent power in global affairs particularly in in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of nuclear power in Iran.
Ironically, it is the perennially Eurosceptic British who have expressed the most enthusiasm for a new European foreign policy. Foreign Secretary David Milliband has become one of the greatest proponents of the European cause on the British Isles. However, the upcoming British elections are likely to sweep into power the obstinately Eurosceptic Conservatives.
To these obstacles one must add a number of national constitutional barriers. Germany’s Supreme Court responded to a recourse placed by Eurosceptics against the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon by essentially proscribing any further derogation of national powers to the institutions of the European Union.
Although the Treaty of Lisbon solves a number of problems with the current functioning of the European Constitution, too many are deferred to be solved in the indefinite future. For example, although much attention has been given to the new role of President to which former Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy was appointed, the creation of the poisiton has complicated the EU’s governing structure as much as it has simplified it. Mr. van Rompuy is not exactly President of the European Union but rather President of the European Council, an institution composed of the heads of state of the member states. Although, Mr. van Rompuy’s position was supposed to replace a rotating 6-months presidency held by one head of state at a time, the new treaty retains this rotating presidency for no discernible reason.
Furthermore, Mr. van Rompuy will still have to deal with the European Commission and its president Manuel Barroso, the Council of Ministers, and finally the European parliaments each institutions implicated in the decision-making process. Granted important improvements have been made by increasing the powers of the European Parliament and by moving the mode of vote in the European Council from a system where each country held veto power to vote by qualified majority.
More fundamentally, however, European leaders have failed to understand the nature of the popular disaffection with European integration. The most vocal Europsceptics, such as British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, have harped on the pains European leaders have gone to in order to circumvent any direct popular consultation on the treaty. Despite Hannan ’s general right-wing zeal, his grievances hold some weight.
Faced with the rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty, European authorities through hand-waving and semantic nuance reproduced the Constitutional Treaty as the Treaty of Lisbon, engaging a process of ratification through national parliaments rather than referenda. When the Irish rejected the new Treaty, the Commission found it appropriate to simply ask them to revote.
While this was certainly a maneuver in order to avoid any sort of direct consultation, it was necessarily undemocratic. Elected members of legislatures approved the treaty in all member states. More importantly however, the referenda were often prey to vast misinformation from opponents of the treaty. This was evident in Ireland where rumors ran rampant that the EU would force the country to legalize abortion or that it would infringe on the competitiveness of the Irish economy, even though the EU has been instrumental in Ireland’s economic success.
Previous referenda had been marked more by dissatisfaction with national administration than with the Constitution itself. The ease with which issues are detracted towards national and otherwise frivolous concerns is indicative of a more fundamental problem with the way the Union functions. Even European parliamentary elections, representing the most democratic aspect of the European Union’s institutions met a record abstention rate which reached over 60%.
The problem is not that Europeans hate Europe but rather that they fear it. And if they fear it, it is because they do not understand it. The functioning of the European Union remains irreducibly inaccessible for the average European. Most are unable to distinguish between the roles of the European Council, the European Commission or the Council of Ministers. Many more are unable to define the role of the new President, himself.
Too often, Europe has appeared like a stern and impersonal authority which has imposed the neoliberal policies that so many blame for facilitated the exodus of industrial jobs to developing countries. On the other hand, few know of the Europe of growth and aid which helped bring Spain back unto its feet after the Franco years. Too few, again, know of the Europe of rights which has repeatedly ensured that European states keep their commitments to Human Rights.
Until Europeans can tangibly feel how EU institutions positively affect their lives they will not return to the European ideal. In acceding to what will surely be the most visible position within the Union, van Rompuy will have a chance to truly change the perception of the EU not only abroad, but also –and more importantly – within Europe.
It appears increasingly unlikely that the dream of a United States of Europe will be achieved, but for the time being, that may not be such bad news after all. The Lisbon Treaty has not gone nearly far enough in making European institutions both accountable and transparent. Today, European leaders should not focus on how to further European integration but should rather focus on how to further improve upon what they have built so far.