The Lisbon summit meeting has managed to close the negotiations on the new Treaty which will replace the failed Constitutional Treaty. By this standard, and imagining what a failure would have meant, the meeting has to be considered a success. Once again, Europe has demonstrated that if it is fantastic at something, it is at finding last-minute compromise solutions. So, after eighteen months of stalemate provoked by the French and Dutch no to the Constitutional Treaty, EU leaders have reached agreement on the institutional and policy reforms which will allow the enlarged EU to function much more effectively. As the Portuguese Presidency has concluded, “the European Union has turned an important page. [It] can now focus on the issues that most concern its citizens, and can do so more efficiently”. Looking back, it is more than ten years of institutional reforms (at least since the 1995 reflection group started to discuss the institutional implications of enlargement) that should be coming to an end. With reason, Europeans are exhausted of institutional debates.
All well that ends well? Probably, but there are some important issues pending, and these should not be easily overlooked.
First, there is the question of ratification. It is too often forgotten that the Constitutional Treaty did not fail in the negotiation, but in the ratification phase. EU leaders are indeed able to agree with each other, we know this, but they have not seemed so able in the past to explain what they are doing to the citizenry and obtaining its support. Contrary to what it is expected, this time ratification is also going to be difficult due to the existence of two competing narratives on the Treaty. Clearly, while some member states are going to need making the Treaty look completely different from the defunct Constitutional Treaty in order to facilitate its ratification, others will be forced to emphasize that differences are merely cosmetic and insist on the Lisbon Treaty being basically a national identity-friendly version of the Constitutional Treaty. Since the Lisbon Treaty is completely unreadable for any ordinary citizen, and absent a consolidated Treaty to compare the Constitutional Treaty with, independent assessments will not be easy. This can provoke a lot of confusion, and a cacophony which may disincentive citizens across both sides of the arguments to come out and defend the Treaty.
Second, there is the question of implementation. An old (and quite cynical) saying of institutional theory goes: “where you need institutions to function effectively, you can’t get them; and where you have them, you don’t need them”. This saying is an exaggeration but it is still useful to highlight some of the problems the EU may face in the near future. The European construction rests on the combination of leadership and institutions (“nothing is possible without men, nothing is lasting without institutions”, in the formulation of Jean Monnet). Thus, though we really need the foreign policy institutions envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty (a High Representative, an external action service, better coordination between Commission and Council, etc.), these will amount to little if national governments do not have the political will to make this institutions have a real impact. In other words, the Lisbon Treaty will help us do what we want to do, but will not necessarily help us in knowing what we want to do (talk to Hamas?, sanction Iran? deal with the Russian challenge?) Therefore, what we have to remain attentive to is to which extent member states are willing to make the most of the Lisbon Treaty and fully implement and develop it. And here, unfortunately, we get mixed signals. The most extended feeling is that over the last two years member states have lost a sense of collective purpose, that divisions over both foreign policy and constitutional politics have exacted a high price and that the glue that unites us has weakened as member states pulled in different directions. It seems evident that in dealing with Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the United States, China or Afghanistan, we have dragged our feet much more than we could reasonably blame on faulty common foreign policy institutions. Now, with the foreign, security and defence policy institutions included in the Lisbon Treaty (including the High Representative, but also the possibility of establishing pioneer groups in many areas, include defence), there will be little or no excuse for member states to continue sticking to policies of the smallest common denominator.
If you combine these two elements, it appears that the Lisbon Treaty may not face the outright hostility the Constitutional Treaty had to suffer, but may instead suffer from public indifference, which may seriously affect national governments’ willingness to fully make us of its provisions. To prevent this vicious circle – of disengaged publics leading to disengaged governments – from developing is one of the key tasks ahead. Clearly, a technocratic approach alone will not be enough to create an effective and coherent foreign policy backed by the European public. Member states should thus start thinking right away about the best ways to use the Treaty implementation phase to re-engage the public. It is not so much a question of political union (which is a normative aspiration), but of political unity (which is a pressing need).
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.