Waiting for the Irish response…

Europe loses its Lisbon hiding place

By Philip Stephens

Published: October 1 2009 22:20 | Last updated: October 1 2009 22:20

Pinn illustration

 

The end is in sight. Fingers crossed, after eight painful years, the European Union may at last succeed in rewriting its rule book. Passage of the Lisbon treaty will sweep aside the continent’s troubles. Europe can turn its mind to things that matter. So the story goes.

I wish I could convince myself. Ratification of the treaty does promise one obvious gain – an end to the obsessive navel-gazing that has drained the Union’s political energy. Beyond that, governments are set to discover that Lisbon solves very little. European institutions are as strong as the political leadership in national capitals.

Here, Europe suffers from a notable deficit. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has the energy and ambitions, but lacks the necessary patience and diplomatic skill. Germany’s Angela Merkel, set after her election victory to build a coalition of choice, hugs the status quo. David Cameron, likely to be Britain’s next prime minister, waves the banner of little England. No need to dwell on Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

The Union, of course, can work without Lisbon. We have seen the proof in the response – ragged at first but ultimately quite effective – to the global financial crisis. There is heavy lifting ahead – notably to preserve the single market and keep borders open to the world – but this has little to do with treaty changes.

Nor have governments produced a document to stir the enthusiasm and imagination of ordinary citizens. Lisbon has been so long in the making, that even those few who once took the trouble to read it can be forgiven for forgetting its provisions.

The continent’s leaders have travelled some distance from the vainglorious hopes of 2001. The over-excited talk then was of a process to rival that of America’s founding fathers in Philadelphia. There was a snag. Europeans, as the French, the Dutch and the Irish showed in successive referendums, are not keen on the idea of a united states of Europe.

So the constitution became a treaty, shorn of federalist pretensions. The final result is an inelegant re-arrangement of the EU’s institutional furniture that falls well short of the original dreams of the continent’s Europhiles and of the worst nightmares of Europhobes.

All that said, I am firmly in the Yes camp. The treaty does have its plus points. They include a clearer voice for Europe on the global stage through the appointment of a permanent president. A new foreign policy representative will be given some clout. Leaders in Washington, Delhi, Beijing and beyond will be spared the ever-changing cast of unknown politicians who now turn up in Europe’s name.

An extension of majority voting may break some of the logjams in Brussels. The European parliament gets more power; José Manuel Barroso gets a new Commission; and national parliaments secure more oversight. People who know about these things tell me the machine will run more smoothly for such changes.

I am getting ahead of myself. The ratification process could yet be derailed at the 11th hour. As Ireland holds its second referendum on the treaty, the opinion polls point to a strong Yes vote. But we will not know for certain until the weekend. Even if the Irish reverse their earlier rejection, there are one or two other hurdles still to be jumped.

Vaclav Klaus, the attention-seeking president of the Czech Republic, is threatening to delay ratification. Mr Klaus has said he will wait until the British election next summer. Mr Cameron’s Conservatives are caught in a timewarp. Still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher, the party wants to scupper the treaty. The odds, though, are tilted towards ratification. An Irish Yes would put immense pressure on Mr Klaus. The Czech parliament, after all, backs Lisbon. Poland, another hold-out, is also likely to fall into line. It would be too late then for Mr Cameron.

So within months, if not weeks, the Union may be choosing its first president. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is the front-runner for the job, though some governments are still casting around for a candidate who is just a little less sure of himself.

What then? Lisbon has provided governments with an alibi. As long as they were arguing about majority voting or the size of the Commission, they could sidestep the issues of substance pressing down on the Union. Efforts to set the remaining Balkan states on the path to accession have been put on hold. Negotiations with Turkey on its eventual membership are running into the ground. The global economic crisis has exposed enduring tensions between the rich western half of the Union and the new members of central and eastern Europe.

Europe’s relations with the great powers – the US, China and Russia – have been characterised more by national hesitations and rivalry than by any obvious coherence. Vladimir Putin’s Russia plays divide-and-rule to devastating effect; Beijing has largely lost interest in the Union; Washington often seems bewildered.

More effective institutions will help, but only as a supplement to rather than a substitute for political will and leadership. Ultimately, the Union is what national governments want it to be. And for the past several years that has been not very much at all.

Once the Lisbon treaty is in force there will be nowhere to hide: no more excuses about institutional overload to drag heels about enlargement; no more blaming an inept rotating president for fumbling Europe’s relationships with the wider world; no more prevarication about how to handle conflicts and threats in its own neighbourhood.

Europe cannot escape the existential choice of the coming decade. Does it want to embrace the irrelevance that will come from an effort to hold on to what it has – oblivious all the while to the reality that nations have to change to stay the same? Or does it want to exercise the leadership necessary to protect and project the open, rules-based system on which its prosperity and security depend? With or without Lisbon, that is the choice.

 

More columns at www.ft.com/philipstephens

 

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