The European Treaty
Give Europe a say
Oct 25th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Sneaking a constitution through on the sly is a bad idea for all Europeans
SURREALISM works well in art, not in politics. When René Magritte wrote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” under a picture of a pipe, it was funny. On October 18th the leaders of the European Union took the constitution that voters in France and the Netherlands had rejected in 2005, changed the odd phrase, muddled the odd concept and presented the Lisbon “reform treaty” to the world, boldly declaring “Ceci n’est pas une constitution”—so there is no need for it to be put to any difficult referendums. Still more surreal has been the reaction: nobody other than a few British Eurosceptics really seems to care. Continental voters who once howled about the treaty have shrugged their shoulders; after barely a week many of the conjurors in Brussels have already given up the subterfuge, reassuring everybody that it is a constitution, after all.
Whatever your views on the treaty, this is a farce—and it has consequences stretching far beyond Europe. This, after all, is the world’s biggest economy; in ten years’ time the mishmash agreed upon in Lisbon could have a huge impact on how the EU acts (see article). At the very least, it marks an important opportunity missed. According to the Laeken declaration of 2001, this process was supposed to simplify the EU‘s legal architecture, hand some powers back to member states and make the project intelligible to the voters. It has ended up doing the opposite—and its obfuscation will come back to hurt the EU in the long term, especially in Britain.
Sludge, pure and simple
The new treaty’s opacity is not an accident: it is its raison d’être. Having failed to persuade voters with grand phrasing and unusual candour (the original constitution declared that EU laws had “primacy” over those of mere nations), European leaders reverted to their previous strategy: cramming a long list of innovations and amendments into an unreadable legal text. The aim was to craft something that could be presented as just another EU treaty, amending previous ones. That in turn allows government leaders to say it is suitable for swift ratification by national parliaments (a deadline of early 2009 has been set), without the need for pesky referendums. So far only Ireland is to hold a national vote on the Lisbon treaty.
Regardless of the treaty’s merits, this has to be wrong. As Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, has been honest enough to admit, 90% of the constitution is still in the treaty. Some countries, notably Germany, have always been allergic to referendums for good historic reasons. However, almost a dozen EU governments promised them on the original constitution; they are being dishonest when they claim the new one is so different that those promises are moot. The only reason why there will be no referendums outside Ireland is that they are likely to be lost—in the Netherlands, Britain and perhaps other places. For an institution desperately short of legitimacy and accountability, that is exactly the wrong excuse.
Two somewhat contradictory arguments are advanced to justify the democratic deceit. The first is that, under all that waffle, the Lisbon treaty itself is actually a significant step forward for the union—essential, in fact, for an enlarged body of nations. Without it, the EU will grind to a halt. The other argument is that the treaty does not matter much, and pushing it through on the sly will allow the union to move on to more important things. Neither really stands up, though Britons should note that in their particular case the second argument may have more truth than the first.
It may be a long way from the dream at Laeken, but the new treaty is clearly not the monster that many Eurosceptics describe (see article). It does not create a superstate, and it contains some useful improvements. It scraps the current system that sees EU nations take six-month turns at chairing all meetings (Slovenia is next in line), instead allowing national leaders to elect one of their own to preside over EU summits for a period of up to five years. It merges two competing posts to create a single foreign-policy chief. It sets up a voting system that is simpler than the unfair formula established in the Nice treaty of 2001, and slims down the European Commission.
Reducing the rejected constitution to a simple package of internal reforms would have been a fine response to the voters’ rebuffs in France and the Netherlands. But it is hard to claim the union is in chaos without these improvements (revealingly, the proposed voting changes will not take full effect until 2017). And the treaty still includes the worst part of the constitution—a sweeping list of misguided good intentions and alleged social rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is an open invitation for EU judges to meddle. Even if other treaties have transferred more sovereign power to the centre (the acid test when it comes to referendums), this one still does a bit of that. Scrapping national vetoes in at least 50 areas of decision-making may make sense, and matter less than Eurosceptics claim, but it plainly hands more power to Brussels; that is what politicians need to justify, not spin away.
The British problem
In 2003 this newspaper suggested putting the draft constitution in the bin and starting again (see article). Given that the Lisbon treaty is merely a remuddled version, our advice remains unchanged. The need to have a new treaty is not so great that it justifies having a poor one. If the Lisbon treaty is not as dangerous as the Eurosceptics make out, the corollary is it would not matter very much if it failed.
Ironically, the country that the treaty affects least is Britain. The opt-outs secured by Britain, though untested, do indeed make the treaty less intrusive. If ratified, the treaty would let the union turn to bigger matters such as enlargement, economic reform and working out what to do about Russia—all causes Britain has championed. However, the British government promised a referendum—and yes, despite Gordon Brown’s denials, it is basically the same constitution. The real danger is of Britain sleepwalking towards the exit—either by rejecting the treaty after every other country has accepted it; or not having a vote and watching the resentment feed into a movement to get out of the EU. Better to have a vote now.