A tactical re-treaty for Europe’s elites

The debate about the Lisbon Treaty - the European Constitution rehashed - reveals how divorced European leaders are from the European masses.

Tara McCormack

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The European Constitution is back. Two years after it was rejected by voters in the Netherlands and France, the treaty has been revised and renamed. But few countries will be putting the treaty to their citizens this time around, just in case their electorates feel inclined to throw another spanner in the works of this tortuously negotiated agreement. The UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, has even promised a tedious line-by-line discussion of the treaty in order to bore and confuse the British people into submission. What is the treaty, and the debate surrounding it, really all about?

Last weekend, European leaders met at the Lisbon Summit to discuss and sign the Reform Treaty – now to be called the Lisbon Treaty. For hostile commentators, the Lisbon Treaty is seen as the next step towards a Brussels superstate, sucking up sovereignty from individual countries. In the UK, the Telegraph and the Sun have launched campaigns to demand that the Labour government fulfil its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum. Supporters of further European integration see the Lisbon Treaty as a vital step towards enhancing European democracy and allowing the European Union (EU) to have a far more effective role in the world in tackling issues like climate change (1).

This debate fails to engage with more important questions about the nature of the EU, its relationship with member states and the reasons behind both the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties. The Constitutional Treaty was much more about European political elites than the European public. And this helps to explain why Euro elites are pushing ahead with the new treaty despite the fact that a broadly similar agreement was rejected by voters just two years ago.

The ever-changing Union

For the last 20 years or so, the European Union has been in a state of constant treaty revision, beginning with the Single European Act (signed in 1986) and continuing with treaties signed at Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001). Even before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Nice, European political elites agreed that another treaty was needed and set up a ‘convention’ to draft it.

Throughout the 1990s, as the EU enlarged and increased its role, fundamental issues to do with the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ and related problems of legitimacy have emerged. The European Union does not have a constitutive political body, the citizens. European political elites felt that the EU lacked political legitimacy amongst ordinary people and was seen as an out-of-touch elite project. At the European Council meeting in Laeken in 2001, the heads of member states declared that ‘the Union needs to become more democratic, more transparent and more efficient’ since citizens ‘feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny’. Thus, aside from institutional reform, the main rationale behind the Constitutional Treaty was to overcome the democratic deficit and to construct a constitutive European political body. In this spirit, the French and Dutch governments held referenda to ratify the treaty, despite the fact that neither government was obliged to do so under the terms of its own constitution. The aim was to increase the mandate for the new treaty, but the votes against were seen only to further highlight the problems of legitimacy.

After the rejections, European political elites stressed that there would be a period of reflection and little was heard about the treaty until this summer, when a new treaty was announced. The resultant treaty is, depending upon who you listen to, the Constitutional Treaty in all but name or a far less ambitious document which aims only to tidy up some outstanding issues of institutional reform. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who was in charge of drafting the Constitutional Treaty, has said that the substance of the Constitutional Treaty remains, as has the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. But in Britain, Gordon Brown has said that there is no need to hold the referendum that Labour had promised in its last manifesto because the new treaty is very different from the previous one. Both the Netherlands and France have said that the Lisbon Treaty will be ratified without a referendum.

The transformation in the nature of the EU and its relationship with the members states was arguably greater in the Maastricht Treaty, which was negotiated for the UK by John Major’s Conservative government. This makes the demand of the modern Conservative Party for a referendum seem a little rich. Furthermore, all European treaties have diluted national sovereignty; indeed, removing aspects of national policy from the direct control and authority of nation states has been the very point of the EU.

The treaty’s content and effect

The content of the Lisbon Treaty is, in substance, the same as the Constitutional Treaty. However, what is that content? Is it the next step towards a superstate or just a bit of institutional tidying up? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The ‘Eurosceptics’ who are outraged about aspects of the treaty – for example, the creation of a legal personality for the EU and the establishment of an EU ‘foreign minister’ – seem to forget that parts of the EU already have a legal personality, while the ‘foreign minister’ is simply a merging of two existing positions. Furthermore, the EU already conducts an enormous amount of foreign relations. For example, the EU has a central role in transforming and governing applicant states such as Turkey, Serbia and Croatia; it effectively runs Bosnia, and sends troops to various other states. The EU is the biggest trading block in the world and one of the largest aid donors.

Institutional reform or lack of it will not necessarily change the way in which the EU functions; this is a question of the will of the member states. During the early 1970s, when the then-European Economic Community (EEC) seemed to be in the doldrums, France and Germany set up an informal summit meeting outside of the institutional framework of the EEC in order to drive integration forward. This has now become formalised as the European Council. Thus, the creation of a foreign minister cannot in itself create a supranational foreign policy. If the member states want to act together they can, with or without a foreign minister.

However, the creation of an official joint foreign and security policy has been one of the sticking points in the past 20 years. Member states have not agreed on all aspects of foreign policy. In recent months, both Italy and Germany have argued against the statements of France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on Iran. So, just as the Eurosceptics are wrong to think that these reforms will result in new kinds of supranational policies that are out of the hands of the member states, Euro-supporters will be disappointed that institutional reform does not automatically lead to supranational policy.

A treaty for the elites

One thing is certain, however: pushing ahead with the Lisbon Treaty has served to increase the very problems and perceptions that the Constitutional Treaty was ostensibly designed to overcome. What this shows is that the aim of the Constitutional Treaty was not in fact to overcome the democratic deficit and construct a sense of European citizenship. If this had been the aim, it would make no sense for Euro elites to push ahead with the new treaty in this way. They could have spent the two years of ‘reflection’ really trying to engage with European citizens about further reforms rather than ‘reflecting’. Instead, European political elites were furious at the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty and the immediate discussions revealed much about the contemptuous attitudes of the European political elites towards their citizens and democracy (2).

The rebirth of the Constitutional Treaty as the Lisbon Treaty shows the whole process is much more about European political elites than European citizens. Like much national and international policy today, these treaties are symbolic rather than material. Rather than playing a role in democratic engagement or the constitution of European citizens, the Constitutional Treaty was about evading that engagement through simulating a European political constituency. The European Union is essentially an elite political project, one that arises from the problems of national political elites rather than from a shadowy, unelected European Commission that is sneakily foisting change upon us. The EU has been developed by European political elites as a way of overcoming political weakness and problems at home through, as Frank Furedi has argued, outsourcing authority (3). The new treaty, like its rejected predecessor, is about creating a framework of legitimacy for European elites.

This explanation for the European Union also resolves what textbooks on the European Union often understand as paradoxical: that the intergovernmental institutions of the EU are those that have pushed forward European integration. That is, governments have actively sought to relinquish control over their own state. So, perhaps not so paradoxically, some aspects of the new treaty actually weaken the Commission vis-à-vis the member states. The foreign minister, for example, would be under the control of the European Council and Council of Ministers and could only pursue policies that the member states unanimously agreed to. Here we have a treaty in which governments are asserting more control over the dissolution of their own authority and accountability.

So what does the Lisbon Treaty mean for the future of Europe? For the moment, attempts at simulating a constituent political authority for the EU have been shelved and the Treaty is business-as-usual for the EU. However, as with preceding treaties, Lisbon will remove more areas of policy out of the direct authority and accountability of the governments of member states and, ultimately, the electorates of member states.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in European Union studies and International Relations at the University of Westminster. She is speaking at the session What next… for democracy in Europe? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked:

Chris Bickerton asked whose Treaty is it anyway?. Mick Hume warned: EU better watch out. Frank Furedi welcomed the reawakening of European democracy but then asked whether we were facing the political end of Europe. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) Letter: EU reform treaty is best for Britain, Guardian, 12 September 2007

(2) EU better watch out, by Mick Hume

(3) A tyranny of experts, by Frank Furedi

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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