So, I’ve been slowly chugging through the tediousness that is the EU’s draft Reform Treaty.
Packed with boredom and predictability, with no real surprises and very few really important changes to the way the EU currently works, it’s one of the dullest documents I’ve had the misfortune to read in quite a while. Which, let’s face it, is hardly surprising considering it’s taken years of petty squabbling and bland compromises to get agreement on the thing. It is, however, rather easier to read than the old Constitution text, strikes me as a fair bit shorter too – and also seems to be full of both contradictions and missed opportunities, which should allow lawyers, politicians, journalists and analysts to argue over precisely what it means and achieves for years to come.
But first, what does the thing actually set out change?
The main new introductions are – from what I can tell – as follows:
– giving national parliaments a (little) bit more power to object to EU legislation
– opt out clauses in areas like immigration and judicial co-operation (e.g. the UK’s lovely decision not to adopt otherwise EU-wide human rights legislation)
– an exit clause to allow member states to quit the Union
– qualified majority voting in 40 areas (eventually, and mostly to do with policy areas that make sense to handle at an international level, like immigration, asylum, copyright, cross-border policing, etc., but many of which will have opt-outs)
– a watered-down version of double majority voting in the European Council, but only after 2014 (a fairly vital move to prevent continued stalemate thanks to individual member states using their vetos to blackmail the rest of the EU)
– an EU President, serving a two and a half year term, with only two terms allowed, elected by the European Council. (Not overly democratic not to allow the people or European parliament to vote for the President, but then again it doesn’t really look like the position’s going to have much real power, acting more like a figurehead/spokesman.)
– a High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (who likewise seems to have few real powers, but will act as a figurehead alongside the President)
– cutting the number of Commissioners from 27 to 15 (for no apparent reason, but it will at least save money)
None of this is really that radical. It’s certainly nowhere near as ambitious as many pro-EU types were hoping, and has very little in it to promote future closer integration or moves towards greater federalism (despite some of the rhetoric, as in Article 10, most of the language is far less federal in tone than previous EU treaties have been).
Nonetheless, some – such as the Telegraph’s always excitable anti-EU analyst Christopher Booker (a good writer, but with a tendency to slip into hyperbole) – have been arguing that the new treaty contains a serious expansion of EU powers:
“Article 3 of the new treaty, which sets out the ‘objectives of the Union’, …has been extended since the draft constitution. It is now drawn so widely that there is virtually nothing which cannot be regarded as an EU objective… What all this amounts to is that the European Union finally wishes to set itself up as the supreme government of Britain and 26 other countries, with unlimited powers over every aspect of our lives”
But is this really the case? Article 3 is too long to reproduce in full, but specifically mentions the following areas, of which there are many but many of which are covered by opt-outs elsewhere: security, justice, asylum, immigration, freedom of movement, an internal market, economic growth, price stability, employment, the environment, promoting science and technology, combating discrimination, promoting equality, children’s rights, safeguarding cultural and linguistic diversity/heritage, expanding the eurozone, promoting peace world-wide.
A fair few areas there, to be sure, but all vague as hell – and nothing new. What could be cause for more worry is Article 4.3’s line:
“The Member States shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives”
But Article 5 (not to mention the opt-outs) has more that largely cancels this this out:
“the Union shall act only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States in the Treaties to attain the objectives set out therein. Competences not conferred upon the Union in the Treaties remain with the Member States…
Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States”
Which, let’s face it, could easily be interpreted to mean that the EU can and should only legislate on things specifically mentioned as being part of its competence, and that it can and should only legislate if and when Member States are proved incapable of acting by themselves.
Later on there are yet more apparent contradictions, like Article 269’s “the Union shall provide itself with the means necessary to attain its objectives and carry through its policies” being largely cancelled out by Article 268’s “the Union shall not adopt any act which is likely to have appreciable implications for the budget without providing an assurance that the expenditure arising from such an act is capable of being financed within the limit of the Union’s own resources”. I would go down hunting them all out, but it’s so dull I can’t be bothered.
In other words, as with any compromise-packed agreement, the language of the new Reform Treaty is so damned vague that you can interpret it pretty much any way you like. Yes, in some areas it could be seen to be granting the EU more power, but only if you ignore other areas that could be interpreted as restricting the areas in which the Union can meddle. Yes, it introduces a permanent EU President, but one who can serve for a maximum of five years and who appears to have few real powers. It introduces qualified majority voting that could force Member States into adopting legislation they don’t like, but also brings in opt-outs and greater powers for national parliaments.
In short, the new treaty is a shambles. None of the really important long-term issues (procedures for future integration, how to deal with diverging interests, the promotion of the Common Market, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the expansion of the EU’s democratic accountability, etc. etc. etc.) have really been tackled. No radical changes have been made to the way the EU runs. Everything will chug along much the same as usual. For those countries who want further integration, it is a disaster. For those like the UK who are less keen on closer involvement, it is – bar the negative reactions from the eurosceptic press – pretty much ideal, as it utterly fails to force the kind of radical new approach to the concept of the EU of which the Union is so desperately in need.
The EU Reform Treaty is, then – despite so many years of controversy leading up to its agreement – utterly unimportant, a meaningless nonsense that will achieve and change next to nothing. Give it a few years, there will have to be another round of talks, and another, more ambitious treaty will have to be put forward. This one does nothing but buy a small amount of time – it certainly doesn’t solve any of the real issues.