Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Will the Luxembourg summit end with a new treaty?

It looks like the EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg may end without a document, after the leaders spent the weekend desperately trying to revive the EU constitution.

The meeting, which by dint of EU regulation must take place in this horrible building in Luxembourg nicknamed the “padded cell” (see photo, right) had a lot riding on it. To recap, the EU constitution, which would have given the EU a single constitution and framework of government, was voted down in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, after many other countries had passed it in similar referendums. The constitution required the approval of every member state, so essentially the French “non” was the end of the road for it.

Now German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who now holds the rotating presidency of the EU, is trying to revive it, but in a different form. Gone is the talk of a “constitution,” and the nations are now trying to work out a “treaty” that will appease the eurosceptics but still have some teeth. The key objective for this week’s meeting was to give clear instructions for a symposium in the fall which will hopefully draw up a treaty to replace the constitution. The main sticking points that needed to be ironed out:

• Will EU law trump national laws? (this is particularly important for England and Scotland, which have common law. Would this be compatible with the civil law of the EU?)
• What should they call this treaty? (anything even remotely sounding like “constitution” is a no-go.
• Will The Charter of Fundamental Rights (sort of like the American Bill of Rights) be part of the treaty? The UK wants it out or wants to be exempt from it because they fear it will give unions more power.
• Will there be an EU Foreign Minister? (The UK is opposed to this)
• How many votes will each nation get? Will it be proportional to the size of the population or something else? (Poland wants a voting system based on the square root of the population, which would give medium-sized countries more power.
• Should the EU have a single president, chosen by the leaders of the member states and serving 2 ½ year terms, rather than the current ineffectual rotating presidency?

The two countries that are being the biggest obstructionists are Poland and the UK. The UK objects to basically everything, and Poland objects to the voting system, demanding a square root system instead. This would be the equivalent of giving Wisconsin the same electoral voting power as Connecticut, a truly frightening prospect. And I think Western Europeans (and I’m thinking particularly of gay Western Europeans) are very wary of anything that gives Poland more representation or power. In the area of religion Poland is very different from the rest of Europe, even from its Eastern European neighbors.

British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett apparently went in there and told the other dignitaries that a referendum on any treaty or constitution that had even the most tepid powers would be impossible to pass in Britain, and there was a gloomy silence following her remarks. What she said was certainly accurate, but by the same token the British government has done little to nothing to try to woo the public on this. While generally considered to be Euro-friendly, Blair hasn’t exactly stuck his neck out for Europe over the past few years, Gordon Brown isn’t expected to change course on that. David Cameron, the Tory challenger to Brown, will likely throw a bone to traditional conservatives who are uncomfortable with his modernizing agenda by adopting an anti-EU stance and insisting on a referendum. And a referendum will inevitably be voted down.

It’s a tricky situation. The British public are overwhelmingly hostile to the EU, but at the same time they’re largely ignorant about its purpose and realities. “Euromyths” abound here, and most British people could spout off a whole list of things they believe the EU forces them to do (their potatoes have to be a certain girth, ships have to travel a certain speed) which are all invariably false. So any reasonable politician who knows that the UK must participate in the EU would rather have these changes done “through the back door” than take the case to the public. After all, why should the ignorant and xenophobic masses make these important decisions? At the same time however, it is precisely because the public hasn’t been involved in this process at all that they distrust the EU so much. And this problem isn’t limited to the UK. Europe-wide, when I talk to people about the EU they seem to have the same impression: it’s being run by unelected business leaders and they have really no idea what’s going on in Brussels, which makes them very hesitant to give Brussels more power.

So, another EU summit ends in deadlock because the leaders are way ahead of their subjects. It seems to me the answer to this problem is not to try to sneak this in through the back door, which seems to have been the tactic used so far, but to take the case to the public and explain really what the EU’s purpose is, because nobody here (in the UK at least) seems to get it. The benefits of a common market need to be explained (Personally I believe the US common market was the single biggest factor in the economic success of the US in the 20th century). The alternative future Europe faces as an irrelevant and impotent society if it doesn’t unite needs to be presented. And mostly, the potential for a united EU to competently and effectively deal with the threat of global terrorism needs to be explained. But no one has the political will (or the political capital) to take this challenge on. Especially in the UK, where Brown will have his work cut out for him to even maintain his prime ministership and Cameron has to deal with a party base that doesn’t like where he’s leading it.

Perhaps the short-sightedness of the problem can be summed up with this development over the weekend. Beckett insisted that the EU should not have a foreign minister because this would take away the ability for the UK to conduct its own foreign affairs and have its own seat on the united nations security council. But the notion that, without a united Europe, the British would be able to justify their seat on the UN security council in 50 years is patently absurd. So the British are fighting to protect a seat they’re going to lose anyway. And should they choose to opt out of the EU process, they may find themselves in the position in 50 years of watching a UK-less EU win a seat on the security council while Britain loses its own seat. D'oh!

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