27 June, 2007

Whither the EU?

A colleague of mine recently returned from Europe, where she has been doing some fascinating research, particularly in regard to electoral reforms. Sometimes I wonder when I look at the state of scholarship on the EU and Europe, I wonder about the big picture. From OpenDemocracy:

Europe’s next steps

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.

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.

So much of the EU debate seems like attempts to force square pegs into round holes. There seems to be an abiding faith that somehow, if we all just keep talking, we'll suddenly find that there are no nationalists after all. It's a faith I don't share.

Sometimes I feel a sense of deja vu. So many of the Soviet experts were so interested in figuring out the details that they missed the structural contradictions. They (not I) couldn't imagine a world without a USSR, even as it was becoming unmanageable, and even as it tore itself apart. How many Europeanists can imagine a world without an EU? It may be closer than we think.

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