Well the EU treaty has been drafted, and Tony Blair can walk away feeling quite pleased with himself, having won on virtually every ‘red line’ demand the British were making. Those who dream of a federalist state, however, will be bitterly disappointed by this compromise.
That’s not to say the Eurosceptics in the UK won’t kick up a fuss about it, but they don’t have much of a leg to stand on now. Though the conservatives will demand one, there is no way Gordon Brown is going to hold a referendum on the treaty in the UK. And the reality is, even if David Cameron manages to defeat Gordon Brown in the next election, it is very unlikely that Cameron would put it to a referendum either. Because even this lukewarm treaty would be voted down by a British population generally hostile to Europe, and Cameron doesn't really want to be single-handedly responsible for either destroying the union or wresting the UK from it. Much like the gay marriage issue in the US, playing on the xenophobia of the Brits might win you elections, but it doesn't work as actual rational policy.
So who won here? Certainly not the federalists, and certainly not the Eurosceptics. It would be, I suppose what one could call the “moderates,” those who want to keep Europe moving forward and get it out of the quagmire it has found itself in since the constitution was voted down, even if it means making many sacrifices.
Just to explain a bit of the context, this treaty was made necessary when France and the Netherlands voted against passage of the original EU Constitution in 2005. Although 18 countries had already ratified the constitution, all it took was one state and the whole project came to a grinding halt. Europe has been trying to figure out what to do next for the last two years. When Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU this year (a policy which will thankfully be ended by this treaty), Angela Merkel made it her mission to revive the constitution, and she’s found a like-minded ally in newly-elected French president Nicholas Sarkozy. Both are pragmatists, and knew that they couldn’t just submit the same constitution to the public again. So all mentions of the word “constitution” were banned from the European political lexicon, and instead we get a “treaty.”
Eurosceptics here in the UK however will argue that the “treaty” is different from the “constitution” in name only, but the reality is there are some significant changes that dilute the power and efficacy of the original document. There is an opt-out for Britain from the Charter of Fundamental Rights (sort of like our Bill of Rights) so Britain can go ahead and torture as it pleases if it so chooses. There will not be a single foreign minister for Europe, so individual countries will still set their own foreign policy. And there won’t be any changes to the voting system until 2014. This last stipulation should keep Poland happy, which was clamoring for a “square root” voting system that would have given them as much voting power as more populous countries like Germany and France.
Of course the treaty still has to be approved by the individual countries, and each one gets to decide whether it will be put to a general referendum or voted on by the parliaments. Blair and Brown are saying the document doesn’t give any new power to Brussels so it doesn’t need a referendum. But neighboring Ireland is putting it to a referendum. The reason why is fairly obvious. In Ireland it will pass overwhelmingly. In Britain it would not.
So it will be interesting to see how this unfolds and which countries will go for direct referendums and which will not. To be honest I have no idea how long that will take. But if you want my two cents, I don’t think European governments should have to make up disingenuous excuses for why they’re not putting this to a referendum. I think all direct referendums are a bad idea, all the time, without exception. California horrifies me actually, with its constant and insane referendums constantly on the ballot. We live in representative democracies. People elect politicians because those politicians can become fully educated and involved in what’s going on. That’s why we entrust our representatives with making decisions for us. The idea that Joe Q. Public is well-equipped and knowledgeable enough to make these kinds of decisions is absurd, and worse yet it smells of mob rule. In this case, the British public is woefully misinformed about what the EU actually is and what it intends to do. The sheer insanity of the “Euromyths” that abound here never ceases to astonish me. What’s more, the British public unfortunately seems to let their smug sense of superiority overrule a rational, realistic assessment of how their country can remain relevant in the 21st century.
Politicians at least have the ability to see the forest for the trees. So it will be interesting to see who will be making the decisions on this treaty. But it is at least heartening to see Europe moving ahead again and perhaps moving out of the stagnation and pessimism of the last few years.