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Conservative European policy: calculating the probability of disaster
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-08-18 07:26:12
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The British Conservatives have committed themselves to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty should they come to power before its EU-wide ratification is complete. The party’s outward resolution on the subject cannot disguise the private concerns of its more practically minded members.

Conservative thinking on Europe increasingly focuses on the calculation: there are a maximum of eleven months until the next general election. Four EU member states have yet to ratify the Lisbon Treaty—the Czech Republic, Ireland, Poland, and Germany. What are the chances that a referendum can be avoided?

This nervous mathematics marks something of a relapse for the party. With the prospect of a spell in government growing, it seemed the Party’s fixation with the Treaty and European institutional issues was beginning to wane. There were moves – albeit very tentative ones - to focus instead upon the question how the EU can be used to implement policy goals.

With the emergence of Conservative policy plans on energy, climate change and global poverty, fact-finding missions to Brussels were even organised for policy-planners. Fledgling efforts to coordinate the work of the domestic party with Conservative MEPs appeared to be taking off.

Recent hurdles to ratification in Germany and the Czech Republic have reversed this trend. The Conservatives are having a wobble. Yet, the Conservatives’ renewed paralysis is unwarranted. A negative British ratification on the Lisbon Treaty would certainly strain relations with other EU members; however, it would not be cataclysmic.

newseuro_400The member states actually enjoy the means to realise many of the changes entailed by the Lisbon Treaty on the legal basis of the existing EU treaties. This is probably true of Lisbon’s headline goals of creating a European diplomatic corps (the “external action service”) and transferring greater powers to the EU on sensitive issues of Justice and Home Affairs.

Where the member states lack the power to effect the Lisbon Treaty’s changes under the existing European treaties, they may be able to slip them into other upcoming treaties: countries like Croatia and Iceland have applied for membership of the EU. In the case of a positive decision by the EU, the requisite Treaties of Accession, signed between the applicant and all EU member states, can also be used to make changes to the EU’s institutional architecture.

Rather than calculating the probability of referendum disaster like rabbits caught in the headlamps, the Conservatives need therefore to focus on the longer term. They must prepare for the eventuality of government under the Lisbon Treaty, and indeed for the possibility of actually carrying out a referendum.

The Conservatives need firstly to mitigate their isolation in Europe. As the Brown government has shown, bilateral relations with other member states can be key to asserting a country’s goals at the European level. The picture of the UK in Europe entertained by many Conservatives is of a country buffeted by unhelpful continental pressures and unable to assert itself. If this negative take on EU cooperation defines the party’s attitude towards seeking allies in Europe, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Following their withdrawal from the European People’s Party, the Conservative party can perhaps only draw upon its relations with the Swedish Prime Minister, and with major Opposition parties in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Clearly, a negative referendum would exacerbate this isolation. Many member governments have paid a heavy price to facilitate the domestic ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and would be extremely hostile to the UK should a domestic referendum scupper the exercise. The German government, for example, invested considerable resources in the process of treaty reform during its 2007 EU Presidency, diverting its attention from other priorities. The question of the Treaty’s fate is also exacerbating underlying tensions between the country’s governing Christian Democrat and Christian Social parties.

The Conservatives must secondly ensure that they are capable of bringing the principles of their policy into line with practical realities. This, of course, is true of any party preparing for government; however, the disparities between the European policy principles set out by the Conservatives in Opposition and the practical realities of operating as a government in Europe are stark. The Conservatives are only just beginning to wake up to this reality. Their promises concerning a repatriation of social and economic affairs may find an echo in other member states – even Germany – but the practicalities of such a pledge are hugely complex.

In the event of a negative British referendum blocking the Treaty, the disparity between principle and practice would be even greater. A Conservative government would be under concerted pressure from its EU counterparts to introduce the changes laid out in the rejected Lisbon Treaty by other means. To succumb would clearly contravene the party’s principled opposition to Lisbon. Even if the Conservatives used this juncture as an opportunity to assert their own vision of the European institutional architecture, the somewhat underhand means available (slipping changes into Treaties of Accession etc) would be largely incompatible with the party’s current stance on European policymaking.

Thirdly, the Conservatives need to revisit many of their assumptions about the EU and its functioning. The party has, for example, traditionally looked upon the enlargement of the EU as a means of undermining the progress of European integration. The Conservatives’ logic is that the accession of new member states will bog down the EU’s decision-making procedures and disrupt the introduction of new laws. This logic is sound insofar as it goes. The trouble is that in order to overcome the resulting sclerosis in decision-making, the member states have typically been persuaded to shift further powers to the EU, taking decisions by a qualified majority rather than unanimity.

In the case of a negative referendum, enlargement would again be high on the EU agenda: Accession Treaties could be exploited to usher in the changes laid down by the rejected Lisbon Treaty. A Conservative government would need to bear this in mind when considering its old enthusiasm for EU enlargement.

Such imperatives are all very well of course, but immediate pressures will inevitably weigh heavier on the mind of the Conservative policy-planner. If the Conservatives are thus intent on focusing on the chances of a referendum, here too a thought could be spared for the practicalities of the matter. It’s still unclear how, under international law, the UK could hold a referendum on a Treaty that it has already deposited. The Conservatives may argue that the Treaty ratified by the UK has subsequently been altered in order to make concessions to the Irish ahead of their second referendum, thus requiring a new ratification process. Such tortuous reasoning would, however, prove contentious amongst the UK’s disgruntled counterparts. 

Roderick Parkes
Brussels - Belgium

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