Monday, October 19, 2009

The Treaty of Lisbon: Why It's Important

Although I am not a British citizen or a citizen of the European Union and I can't vote in either national or continental elections, I do enjoy the rights and privileges of living and working in the United Kingdom and Europe, which is why the Treaty of Lisbon is of particular interest to me. Moreover I've always been interested in political philosophy in practice, and the European experiment is perhaps one of the most interesting case studies of supranational federalism to date. Therefore, if fully ratified, the Lisbon Treaty could be remembered as one of the most significant political developments since the end of the Second World War.

The paradox of the European Union has always been that it was born out of a desire for economic integration as a deterrent to conflict, but member states have historically been hesitant to take it much further than that, sometimes even leaning towards the paranoiac tendency of unbalanced “euroscepticism”. The most significant success of the European Union is the single market which allows for the free circulation of goods, capital, people and services within the EU (currently all 27 EU member countries are in the European single market and Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein also participate although they are not “officially” in the EU). Understandably, attempts at deeper integration have met nervous reactions in various member states, fearing that yielding certain aspects of state governance to a supranational body would lead to an eventual loss of national autonomy. However, the truth is that, up to this point, the European Union has been bound together by not much more than a number of treaties and agreements, most significant of which are economic, and it has lacked a consistent centralized administrative core uniting the various objectives. Under their current model, successful economic expansion and global competitiveness is unsustainable. From my point of view and in light of their combined economic might, the members of the European Union should consent to a more prominent, visible, and permanent structure of rules, powers and duties of government in order to succeed both collectively as a union and independently as individual autonomous nations.

The formation of an effective democratic governing body should be founded on a well-drafted and dynamic constitution agreed to and written by all member parties, having acknowledged and addressed the major unique interests of each state and establishing a system of resolution for unforeseen conflicts between signatories.

After failing ratification in 2005 the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe ("TCE") was by all accounts, a disappointing setback in the long process towards European political cooperation, which is why there is a second attempt at a continent-wide system of administration, the Treaty of Lisbon. According to Europa, the official administrative website of the European Union, the purpose of the Lisbon Treaty is fourfold, providing “the Union with the legal framework and tools necessary to meet future challenges and to respond to citizens’ demands”. As outlined on their website the primary goals of ratification will be to create a more democratic and transparent Europe, make Europe more efficient, secure Europe as a place of rights, values, freedom and solidarity, and to present Europe as a global actor on the stage.

As you can see, these stated goals are at first vague and are largely qualitative, but the Lisbon Treaty itself is a dense 272 page document which creates numerous permanent structures that would streamline existing, incomplete institutions, thereby filling in a lot of gaps that have caused confusion over the last decade. I admit, I haven’t read the entire text, but I do understand its overarching aim. Proponents of the treaty argue that it will improve the efficiency of the enlarged bloc of 27 nations and establish a permanent foundation for future expansion, but opponents argue that it is part of a larger federalist agenda to usurp sovereignty from the individual member states and to elevate it to a multi-national "super-state". In reality, I believe there are valid claims to each view that must be considered, but that the latter is a bit excessive in its paranoia.

The most significant change would involve creating an elected executive political head of the European Council for a term of two and half years, replacing the current six month presidency rotation between member states which has been largely symbolic up to this point. It would also create a new post streamlining the jobs of the current foreign affairs and external affairs commissioners in order to provide the EU with a more permanent and coherent diplomatic role in international relations; a sort of Secretary of State or Foreign Minister for the European Union. Additional statutes would revise voting distribution and weight among member states and build new powers into existing institutions such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice. Comprehensively, these efforts are aimed at making Europe a distinct global player capable of representing all members’ joint economic interests.

In reality, the grand European experiment is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Upon achieving economic supremacy as a single market, progress on all other issues has stagnated significantly. Europe lacks a common, cooperative approach to foreign policy, security, and external negotiation and recognition as a single political body. This is hard to believe when considering the following. The population of the European Union, as of 2009, stands at approximately 500 million people. The European Union is the number one donor of aid to the developing world and the single largest economy, having overtaken the United States in the last several years. It is also the largest trading partner to the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the largest exporter and importer of goods and services. The euro, the currency of 16 member states and still growing, has become a dominant world currency, edging ever closer to the pound sterling and having already passed the US dollar as a strong and stable reserve currency. When you consider that Europe has become an economic leader in a world facing the universal challenges of global financial instability, international terrorism, and climate change, it seems absurd and shortsighted that they lack a coordinated diplomatic and security effort to protect their economic interests.

The problem it faces currently is as follows. The Lisbon Treaty has reached the final hurdle to achieving success, requiring one more ratification process in the Czech Republic after having been ratified by the other remaining members delaying a signature, Ireland and Poland. If the Czech Republic refuses to ratify the treaty, it risks being entirely unraveled at the last stage in the same way as its predecessor, the Constitution of Europe. Alternatively, if President Klaus of the Czech Republic simply stalls the ratification by requesting unique opt-out privileges, it will most certainly delay the process, running the risk to be prolonged until the parliamentary elections in the UK for which the Tories and David Cameron are anticipated to sweep the votes and unseat the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. President Klaus has specified a desire to opt-out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights imbedded within the Treaty which he fears could lead to Germans who were expelled after World War II returning to make property claims. If this occurs, Mr. Cameron and the eurosceptics in his party would have the time and ability to call a national referendum on the Treaty, thereby reversing the ratification of the previous administration and rebooting this cycle all over again. The Lisbon Treaty therefore will be remembered as having failed ultimately as a result of the Conservative Party in Britain's reluctance towards deeper integration with an effective assist by President Klaus of the Czech Republic. This will become the second failed attempt in the last decade to improve the institutions and efficiency of the union and could start a trend of continental complacency towards future development and expansion as the large countries of the "pro-Europe" camp, France and Germany, become more disillusioned with the prospects for success.

The EU summit in Brussels at the end of this month was anticipated to be a celebration of unanimous ratification, and official implementation was meant to commence. In fact the expectation was to appoint the first European Council president, ironically enough the leading frontrunner being former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as the first foreign minister. Instead, a legislative tussle in a small central European member state risks that this saga will last well into the New Year with its destiny uncertain at best, especially if the Tories take over the parliament in Britain in 2010 and another wave of anti-integration sentiment spreads across one of the EU’s most important member states.

In my opinion the fear that the EU is becoming a "United States of Europe" and that member states will lose national sovereignty is an irrational one. Each country has their own unique complexities and problems that a federal European central government would not be able to address, yet alone fully understand. However, the establishment of more permanent, transparent, and democratic institutions within the framework of the European Union should be addressed so that long term economic interests are protected. Exactly how each of these objectives are met is unclear at the moment, but it is worthy of consideration and requires diligent debate and discussion. I do not believe that any single nation in the EU is capable of becoming a serious international player on its own. They face the same shared challenges; a risky oil dependency on Russia, the threat of terrorism and homegrown religious fundamentalism, declining birth rates, waves of illegal immigration, and questionable stability in their own backyard in the Caucasus, Western Balkans, and the Middle East. To abandon the immense diplomatic potential and geo-political power of a more federal Europe comprised of autonomous member states before it ever becomes a possibility would be a tragic and lazy resignation to mediocrity and an acceptance that these challenges cannot be solved collectively.

KV

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