Ireland puts the EU show back on the road

October 3, 2009

biffoThe EU show is back on the road. Sixteen months after Irish voters brought the European Union’s tortured process of institutional reform to a juddering halt by voting “No” to the Lisbon treaty, the same electorate has turned out in larger numbers to say “Yes” by a two-thirds majority.

This is an immense relief for the EU’s leadership. After three lost referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland, and a record low turnout in this year’s European Parliament elections, the democratic legitimacy of the European integration process was increasingly open to question. The Irish vote will not completely silence those doubts. Opponents are already accusing the EU of have bullied the Irish into voting again on the same text, and of blackmailing them with economic disaster if they did not vote the right way this time.

Try this for size from a British Euro-sceptic, Lorraine Mullally of the Open Europe think-tank:

This is a sad day for democracy in Europe.  The Lisbon Treaty transfers huge new powers to the EU and away from ordinary people and national parliaments.  EU elites will be popping the champagne and slapping each other on the back for managing to bully Ireland in to reversing its first verdict on this undemocratic Treaty. But most ordinary people around Europe will not welcome this news, as they were never given a chance to have their say on the Treaty.  We should all be deeply worried about the way in which EU leaders have gone about forcing this Treaty on us.  Polls show that the majority of people across Europe want to be consulted on major transfers of power such as this – but politicians in Brussels aren’t interested in what the people want.

The fact that the turnout in Ireland was higher, and the majority larger than in the first referendum may blunt such arguments. But EU leaders will clearly learn one key lesson from the Irish precedent: the days of grand treaties on ever closer European union are over. With unanimous ratification by 27 member states required, the probability of at least one country rejecting change is just too high.

For better or worse, the Lisbon treaty will be Europe’s rulebook for a generation. I reckon there won’t be another major overhaul of EU institutions for 20 years. Any further integration will take the form either of closer cooperation among groups of like-minded countries on issues such as defence, justice or taxation, or perhaps of limited, specialised treaties on policy areas such as energy and climate change.

The Lisbon treaty, and its predecessor, the defunct EU constitution, were never the federalist blueprints that their opponents claimed. But Lisbon does offer he prospect of somewhat more efficient leadership and decision-making in an enlarged Union. More decisions will be taken by majority vote instead of unanimity, notably on justice and home affairs. The directly elected European Parliament will have power over more legislation. And national parliaments will have a better chance to scrutinise, and send back, EU legislation.

A new long-term president of the European Council of EU leaders and a foreign policy chief at the head of a 5,000-strong diplomatic service and an 8-billion-euro budget will give Europe a higher profile on the international stage. But whether the Europeans become bigger global players hinges largely on their political will to think and act strategically, and to risk involvement in trouble spots and crises. To judge from their disjointed efforts in Afghanistan, that is still a tall order.

Europe’s effectiveness will also depend on the personalities chosen to fill the big jobs. These appointments are traditionally stitched up in backroom deals between EU leaders in compromises between large and small states, northern and southern (and now also eastern) Europe, and between left and right. Of course Europe needs political balance. But it also needs strong, inspiring leadership.

If the first president of the European Council is a figure of international stature, with charisma and a successful track record in government, he or she will give the EU a bigger place in the emerging new world order. Ditto for the foreign policy chief. It is depressing to hear some officials say their prime ministers want weak personalities who won’t overshadow them.

The next few weeks until the EU’s October 29-30 summit will be dominated by speculation about who will get which job. When you hear the names of Tony Blair, Jan-Peter Balkenende, Paavo Lipponen, Bernard Kouchner, Carl Bildt, Olli Rehn, Michel Barnier or Hubert Vedrine, ask yourself one question: who will do the best job for Europe, giving the EU the most credible profile around the world and with its own citizens.


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