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The subversive power of politics

The results of EU's June summit, by Sarah Seeger and
Dr. Dominik Hierlemann

06.09.2007 · The Bridge

The task which the German government sought to complete at the end of its EU Council presidency was not an easy one. More than two years after the French 'non' and the Dutch 'nee,' its stated aim at the EU's June summit was to make a sustainable contribution to the constitutionalization of Europe. Therefore, the German government proposed a mandate for an intergovernmental conference, where a new set of reforms for the EU is to be finalized by the end of the year. The strategy is clear: The Constitutional Treaty will be the starting point of the negotiations, and most of its provisions will probably be adopted. The constitution as such will be replaced by an amending treaty in the tradition of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice. The net results of the constitutional process will be seen in various institutional changes, and, over and above this, in the rationale of European politics.

Success with minor blemishes

There is no point in quarreling about who actually won the constitutional debate. The compromise which was reached is clearly an improvement compared to the Treaty of Nice. The principal innovations include the extension of the co-decision procedure, the introduction of the double majority, the downsizing of the Commission, the election of the president of the European Council, the legally binding character of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the strengthening of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the clear division of competences, and the introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative. Furthermore, the provisions relating to migration, energy policy and climate change do justice to the changing global challenges. Compared with the Constitutional Treaty, many of the heavily discussed amendments adopted at the June summit turn out to be rather cosmetic than fundamental. Even the deferred introduction of the double majority, which will not fully enter into force until 2017, might turn out to have a much lower impact than was communicated. This will provide some comfort to the 'friends of the Constitution,' who were forced to swallow a bitter pill in order to secure the assent of the opponents of the reform. The greatest sacrifice is that the idea of creating a constitutionalized European democracy had to be relinquished. With regard to transparency, legitimacy and the capacity to facilitate identity, the draft of the new treaty lags far behind the Constitutional Treaty.

Obstacles to reform

It is now up to the Portuguese EU presidency to implement the mandate of the June summit. However, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the new treaty will in fact be adopted. Shortly after the June summit, the Polish government announced that it would accept the compromise. But even if it is possible to reach an agreement by the end of the year, the new EU primary law will then have to surmount the obstacle of the ratification process in all of the member states. In most cases the decision will be made by parliament; a referendum is compulsory only in Ireland. However, in the UK, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic there have already been calls for referendums. In view of the plethora of voices critical of the EU, it cannot be ruled out that the electorate may (once again) say 'no.' Furthermore, the lack of a Plan B may well lead to a situation where the failure of the current attempt to reform the EU primary law will arrest the European integration process for a long time to come.

However, although it is impossible to predict the outcome of the current treaty reform, it is nonetheless possible to identify three main lessons from the constitutional process and the Brussels summit.

Irreconcilable views of the Union's 'finalitee'

It becomes clear that the question of the Union's 'finalitee' has returned with a vengeance to the debate about future European integration. A political order needs a framework from which it can derive its legitimacy, and within which the citizenry can perceive parts of its identity. Yet whereas former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has spoken out in favor of a 'United States of Europe,' others have cast doubt on the EU as a political project. In the wake of the Polish demands the British in particular have been whittling away at the fundamental pillars of European integration. The decision to opt out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and justice and home affairs demonstrates that the United Kingdom has shifted further away from joint policymaking. These controversies reveal the existence of profound conceptual differences. An agreement on the Union's future shape is well needed.

More politicization

However, in the light of declining popular support for the EU, a second lesson needs to be taken to heart. Debates about what Europe will look like in the future should no longer be conducted in tightly guarded conference rooms. They ought to take place in public, and they should involve controversy. It is imperative to change the culture of European politics. A move in this direction was seen at the Brussels summit, where the frequently deceptive and feigned unanimity of the past was replaced by a frank exchange of views in the full glare of the media. However, hitherto there have been only a few channels capable of bringing together elitist debates and public opinion. Whereas it is true that Europe is already at the heart of the political discourse, the debates are not fed back to the EU’s institutions. Thus it is possible for populists to jump into the gap and instrumentalize for their own purposes the citizens' demand to discuss European politics. EU intermediary structures need to be developed and politicized in order to establish a genuine dialogue between the political decision-making center and the citizenry. Thereby it will be possible to integrate disagreement as a normal part of European politics which does not call into question the very existence of the European Union.

An important step in this direction will have been taken if the reformed treaty really enters into force in 2009. The European Parliament will have been strengthened, and the introduction of a European citizens' right to petition will encourage participation and involvement. In addition to this, EU policymaking will have been personalized. In future the president of the European Commission, with his strengthened role, the high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy, and the president of the European Council will give the Union some memorable faces. This will make the EU more visible, and facilitate clear profiles. Citizens will be able to decide in favor of a political alternative at the ballot box.

Changing architecture

The European Union — and this seems to be the third lesson to be learnt from the constitutional process — no longer fits into its current architecture. Different interests lead to changing coalitions, and this imparts a new character to the European Union. Although the very idea may seem inconvenient, the future of integration may well be based on dissent and not on consensus. However, this should be construed as enrichment of European integration, and not as a nightmare. Various groups of countries can make progress in specific policy areas and attempt to discover where there is further potential for cooperation.

In future it will be necessary to think of Europe in a different way. Overlapping areas of integration will need a different institutional structure. Even if this idea might not attract major approval, the EU will have to take into account these developments by embarking on another set of reforms — possibly as a 'Constitution II.' Only after it has made substantial changes to its institutional design will the European Union be able to cope with the plenitude of global challenges.

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