After Ireland followed Amy Winehouse’s example and voted “No, No, No” to the rehab of the Lisbon Treaty, which had promised to rescue Europe from its addiction to institutional navel-gazing, the reactions have been predictable: confusion from Europe’s leaders, Schadenfreude from the eurosceptics and pessimism from europhiles like Paddy Ashdown, who thinks the crisis could be “the beginning of the end of the EU as we know it”.
But before Europe returns to stale arguments between eurosceptics and their counter-parts, it is worth remembering why European leaders promoted the Lisbon Treaty in the first place. They did not do it because they are undemocratic. They did not do it because, with a few exceptions, they seek a United States of Europe. If you believe that you will believe anything. They did it because in today’s world, European governments face challenges to protect their citizens and promote their wellbeing, which they cannot, by themselves and acting alone, address.
Take commerce. Back in 1975, the G7 accounted for about 62% of the world’s economic output. Today that proportion is down to 57%. And the figure is set to plummet further: to 37% by 2025 and 21% by 2050. Britain, France, Italy, and Germany will represent an even lower proportion. In a little more than forty years time no European country should, by right, be part of the G8. This will means a loss of influence in bodies like IMF and World Bank and the operation of the world’s economy.
Take demographics. In Spain and Sweden, Germany and Greece, the total fertility rate – or the average number of children that a woman, based on current indicators, is expected to give birth to – was 1.4 or lower last year, according to the WHO. In no West European country did the rate reach 2.1 – the marker that, demographers say, means an exact replenishment of the population.
Not all the trends are, of course, negative. Europe has eclipsed the US in stock market value: Europe’s 24 stock markets (with Russia), saw their capitalisation rise to $15,720bn in 2007. This exceeded the US $15,640bn market value. The rise of the euro against the dollar have also seen Europe close a long-held gap with the U.S.
But the over-arching trend is hard to miss: the decline of Europe’s influence in and on the world. If uncorrected, what does this mean in the long-term: a greater diffusion of power and decreased support for a rules-based multilateral system and international norms, such as human rights, at a time when the world is moving to a no-polar set-up.
To make it clear: unless the EU 27 work together, they will not be able to address many of their own or those of the world. At Bali, the EU arrived with an offer to reduce by 20 % greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Had European governments brought their own rag-bag set of targets, none of these would have had the weight of the EU’s single target in setting a world standard and push for an agreement at the UN conference.
The same is the case at the UN. When Europe negotiates and votes as a bloc, it can push its agenda. From the 1997-8 General Assembly session to that in 2006-7, the level of voting coincidence with common EU positions ran at around 80%. In China, only when the EU acted together – spearheaded by Javier Solana, France, Britain and Germany – was it possible to get Beijing to join with the EU (and U.S) in the UN Security Council and censure Iran.
Often, of course, the EU acts with headline-grabbing disunity. From the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s to the ongoing back-and-forth on Serbia’s EU accession, the Balkans are littered with the effects of EU disarray. Over Kosovo the EU split between those who wanted to acknowledge the state’s independence and those against. The result: a weak and ill-equipped justice-and-police mission with no political top-cover, an emboldened Serbia, and strained UN-EU relations.
But this only confirms the need for the EU to cooperate more effectively to achieve each country’s aims. Fine, say some, but what is wrong with the status quo? A lot actually. Who thinks the EU’s division over Kosovo has been helpful? Who thinks that Europe’s reluctance to help NATO’s ISAF mission does anyone any good. Who thinks EU disunity over Iran’s nuclear programme will encourage Tehran’s regime to halt it illegal activities? Who believes that a divided Europe is the best placed to greet a new U.S president?
Few of those who follow world affairs – and have an eye on the trend-lines – think the status quo is functional. This means that Europe’s leaders should think of ways for the EU to work more effectively. If they fail to do so, they would fail in their duties. In the Lisbon Treaty they gave it their best, but created an incomprehensible, unreadable set of reforms that was unlikely ever to be accepted by all of Europe’s citizens. Now that it has been rejected by the Irish it is their duty to come up with something new.
If and when it is evident that the Lisbon Treaty is dead – too early to tell now – two key options are available: a minimalist and a maximalist one. Minimally, European leaders should think about ways of improving the Union’s foreign policy instruments. Many of the changes could probably be created without a Treaty and through Council and Commission decisions.
But a more maximalist option would be to push ahead with a multi-speed Europe. Multi-speed not in the sense of fast/middle/slow; rather, multi-speed in the sense of overlapping ellipses of cooperation. This is not the same as consigning Europe to fragments – because the key ellipses (e.g. euro, Schengen) expand over time until they come to cover all European countries. Both options would be democratic, so eurosceptics should park their stock in trade accusations of Europe’s leaders being undemocratic: let us not forget that millions of Spaniards voted for the Constitutional Treaty and their views must count as much as the Irish. Both options will, of course, have their detractors.
But failure to act on one or the other – and thus create an open, outward-looking global Europe – would be to fail in the most democratic of duties: to act in ways that would protect Europe’s citizens.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.