Europe moving on

The result of the referendum held in Ireland at the beginning of this month has signalled the virtual end to a long campaign in Europe to get the Treaty of Lisbon ratified by all 27 member-states of the European Union. At the end of September Germany, which was awaiting a formal judicial decision on the compatibility of the Treaty with the country’s laws received it, and a Ratification Act was signed by the German President. And following the Irish result, the Government of Poland approved the Treaty, leaving only the Czech Republic to do likewise. It is unlikely that the Czech President will now hold out for long.

The vote in favour of the Treaty by the Irish on this occasion was decisive enough not to allow the remaining doubters any real encouragement to believe that it will not come into effect. Unlike the Irish referendum held in June last year in which the Treaty was rejected 53% to 46%, the recent vote of 67% to 33% reflected a substantial swing, leaving no real basis for further contention by domestic political opponents.  The Irish Government negotiated some concessions on the retention of the country’s neutrality, on the orientation of its tax system that has emphasized openness to international investment, and on abortion, always a significant issue in a majority Roman Catholic country. That process of bargaining and granting concessions is something familiar in the European integration political process, and no doubt, a genuflection in that direction will be made to the Czechs. But it has also true to say that since the June 2008 referendum, the Irish economy has taken a deep dive, and the Government and people have come to accept that the support for European economies taken at the EU level, has been decisive in ensuring that more damage has not been done to the country’s prospects for recovery.

The objective of the Lisbon Treaty has been stated firstly, as permitting the EU’s governance institutions to be brought into line with the increasingly more coherent arrangements necessary for the consolidation of the Single Economy, in the context of the pressures of globalization that have brought new economic actors into today’s global economic competition. In that connection, the recent and continuing economic crisis has given support to those in the EU who have wished to see more decisive action, ostensibly to safeguard Europe’s place in the economic rankings.  Secondly it has been asserted that institutions permitting more decisive decision making and implementation had become necessary, in response to the global geopolitical re-arrangements that are accompanying the economic change with, in particular, the rise of new powers in Asia. The United States, traditionally a supporter of European integration, has for some time been pushing the European to establish institutions that would respond to a question allegedly asked by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the 1970’s: “If I wish to speak to the European Community whose number shall I call”?

But thirdly, part of the rationale for the institutional reforms leading to Lisbon has been a persistent concern in non-governmental circles to what has been referred to as a “democratic deficit” in Europe’s integration arrangements – decisions being seen as basically a combination of deals made between the European Commission – the Union’s civil service so to speak – and the Heads of State. Lisbon brings to the European Parliament a further set of powers that will force the governments to seek the approval of the Parliament more often, and in a greater number of spheres of decision-making. EU governments have in fact become aware that the approval ratings of their integration process have been low, a situation basically validated by the last elections to the EU Parliament where there was a turnout of only 43% of the European electorate.

And fourthly, Lisbon is a response to a fact that had increasingly come to dawn on the larger states of the Community/Union. They had, in the Europe of Six and then of Twelve, been accustomed to making decisions based on a belief that there was a substantial commonality of beliefs and objectives among themselves – basically fully industrialized states, that would normally permit easy negotiation, and concessions towards the quick making of decisions.

The new fact was the rapid expansion of the number of members states – now to the number of 27 – absorbed into the Community and Union as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Soviet-dominated “world socialist system”. The original members of the Union have found that there is something of a difference in values between themselves and many of the new complement of member-states. This, in the opinion of some, is diminishing the coherence of the system, and leading to delays in the decision-making. A substantial disparity in sizes and levels of development of economies is now evident; a greater sense of nationalism and autonomy is being displayed (unlike the cases for example of Ireland, Spain and Portugal which unhesitatingly accepted the norms of the EC as superior and almost inevitably beneficial to themselves); and more cases are being made for what we, on this side of the world, would refer to as “special and differential treatment”. We may virtually say, that the EU, like Caricom, has come to have its own version of MDC’s and LDC’s.

That the process of integration in Europe has, from time to time, been slowed or disrupted by one or other recalcitrant government, is of course not a new phenomenon. Those familiar with the Union will recall the decisive break on decision-making which General de Gaulle, citing France’s disagreement with certain trends, placed on the system by a de facto veto. But the present situation presents such a scenario on a larger scale, with the complaints against compliance being more numerous.

These new developments are indeed part of the rationale for the Lisbon Treaty. The intention of having additional senior offices to that of President of the Commission is in part meant to identify a new division of labour in the continuing work of the Union as a system, and to match the diversity of types of countries now in the system. Europe now has three categories of states: the original industrialized states of Western Europe, the states of the now defunct Soviet system, and the small island-states, Cyprus and Malta. To cope with the new complexity there is proposed, among other things, a more clear separation of the functions of the system for preparing and carrying through decisions,  from the functions of overall guidance and provision of legitimacy of decisions that is the domain of the Heads of State and Governments.  The former functions are now to be the responsibility of a new President of the European Council and a new High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Of course, the atmosphere in which the Treaty of Lisbon was negotiated – one of increasing complexity of economic and political trends, but of essential optimism about Europe’s capacity to cope with them – is different from the mood of pessimism about the possibilities for elevation of countries from the economic morass into which Europe, like so many other countries of the globe has been plunged. On the continent today, a certain mood of nationalism has been developing, with countries somewhat more hesitant to give up protectionist decision-making prerogatives which they think can be helpful if their economic situations further deteriorate.

But the Europeans have also found ground for optimism in the manner in which the European Central Bank, has been able to bring coherence to EU economic decision-making. Throughout the recent period it has sought to complement its management of the common currency  with a certain insistence on collective decision-making not only in monetary matters relating to the stability of the euro, but to the underlying more general economic basis for that stability. And the globalisation of economic decision-making, involving not simply the North Atlantic powers any more, but the new so-called emerging powers – China, India, Brazil, as well as Russia, is itself forcing Europe to realize that institutionally organized, as against ad hoc, cohesion among its member-states is now a sine qua non for effective participation in that environment.

From that perspective, the Irish vote has come at a crucial time. And it allows the Union to move on, in spite of the lingering hesitations of the Conservative party of Britain, now promising a referendum on the Treaty if it should come to office next year.