Unless something goes badly wrong, European Union leaders will agree a new treaty at this week’s summit in Lisbon. Unlike the doomed Constitution of 2005, which aimed to supersede all earlier agreements with a grandiose state-building exercise, this will be just another amending treaty shorn of the trappings of statehood.
And yet, the euroskeptic media in Britain have whipped up an emotional debate by spreading myths: that Britain would lose its seat at the United Nations; that an EU foreign minister would take over British foreign policy; that British embassies would be replaced by EU embassies; in short, that this treaty would create a superstate. In reality, the new text will be a fairly modest affair — far from the unrealistic aspirations of the Constitution’s author, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, or the irrational fears of British europhobes. But the new treaty will make the EU work better, endowing it with greater efficiency, democracy and power in the world.
The treaty tries to streamline the EU’s ramshackle institutions — designed originally only for the six founding member states — in order to support a political grouping of now 27 countries. The new “double-majority voting” formula gives EU decisions greater legitimacy as they’d have to be passed by a majority of states that also represent a majority of citizens. The treaty will give the EU more continuity by replacing the “rotating presidency” with a president chosen by national governments for two and a half years. It reduces the size of the European Commission to 15 from the current 27 so that it can work more effectively as the EU enlarges. And it extends qualified majority voting to new areas like energy policy and humanitarian aid. These are all rather minor changes.
The new treaty also tries to calm the fears of those who see European integration as a one-way street from which there is no escape. For the first time, there is a provision that enables member states to withdraw from the EU. More importantly, the treaty also gives national parliaments a greater say in EU policies. If one-third of national parliaments object to a Commission proposal, it will be sent back to Brussels for review (the “yellow card”). If a majority of national parliaments oppose a Commission proposal — and national governments or members of the European Parliament agree — then it can be struck down (the “orange card”). The treaty also extends the powers of MEPs to areas national governments used to keep to themselves, such as the Common Agricultural Policy. For all those who want to see CAP reform, this will be good news as they’ll have many MEPs on their side.
The most compelling reason for supporting the reform treaty is the fact that it could help the EU become a more effective power in the world. The EU has the resources to be a real global player: It is the largest single market in the world, it is involved in over half of the world’s trade, and it has over 50,000 peacekeepers deployed from Bosnia to Beirut and an even larger army of diplomats and aid workers. But despite all of this latent power, the EU punches way below its weight. When its member states disagree, as over Iraq, the EU cannot hope to be credible. But even when the governments do agree to pursue a common foreign policy, the EU’s fragmented institutional machinery often prevents it from delivering in an effective and timely manner. The big problem is that EU institutions and member states often fail to coordinate their various policies and instruments — including trade, aid, defense, policing and diplomacy — in the pursuit of common objectives.
If you travel to countries in the European neighborhood such as Ukraine, Georgia or Egypt, you cannot help but be depressed about how the EU squanders its power. In Cairo, human-rights activists are so struck by the lack of urgency of European democracy promotion that they have called it “project 3000.” The new treaty could start to turn things around by beefing up the role of the “High Representative for External Affairs” who would also become a vice president of the European Commission. This person would chair meetings of European foreign ministers and be supported by an “External Action Service,” largely made up of existing Commission personnel in overseas offices with some diplomats seconded from member states. As a result, foreign governments, such as the one in Cairo, would no longer be able to play different EU institutions off against each other. They will have to negotiate with one single contact point who will have much more leeway to scrutinize their human- and political-rights records and, if necessary, adjust the terms of their access to the European market and the EU’s 1 billion euro aid budget.
In many countries, though, less attention is being paid to the substance of the treaty than to what percentage of the text is similar to the Constitution. This numerical analysis is largely meaningless. The phrase “I want to kill your father,” for example, contains over 85% of the words of its opposite, “I don’t want to kill your father.” In any case, Britain, which is most obsessed with these linguistic games, has negotiated so many “red lines,” or derogations and opt-outs, that it will be signing a different text than everyone else.
Even treaty skeptics should celebrate the fact that Europe’s leaders are finally closing a deal. The EU has spent more than two years in the throes of a political breakdown. The crisis was not brought about by the loss of the Constitution as such, but rather the loss of confidence that came with it. This became an excuse for inaction and navel gazing. The most dramatic signal of the EU’s loss of nerve is the foot-dragging over one of its biggest policy successes: enlargement. The current debate focuses exclusively on the costs, ignoring the economic benefits, such as that the thriving export markets in Eastern Europe have helped boost the economies in the old member states. And there is very little discussion about the damage our wavering commitment to enlargement is doing to the reform momentum in Turkey and the Balkans.
In the past, widening and deepening have always gone hand-in-hand. The new treaty will put a stop to the interminable institutional debate that has been distracting EU leaders for more than two decades now. Once the treaty is wrapped up, they can return to what should be their core vocation: spreading stability and prosperity around the European continent.
This opinion piece was published by the Wall Street Journal today.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.