Impression of a European Union in crisis

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?


In the Unit­ed King­dom, the future of the Lis­bon Treaty is a sub­ject which cur­rent­ly is only rarely dis­cussed in either pub­lic or polit­i­cal cir­cles. The gov­ern­ment, hav­ing com­plet­ed the par­lia­men­tary rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the treaty last sum­mer, sees no polit­i­cal inter­est in fur­ther con­tro­ver­sy on the mat­ter; the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty, the main oppo­si­tion par­ty, has tak­en a strate­gic deci­sion to speak less about Euro­pean issues than it did before David Cameron became its leader; and pub­lic opin­ion is con­cerned by domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic ques­tions to the exclu­sion of all oth­er polit­i­cal top­ics. British pub­lic and polit­i­cal opin­ion in any case and under­stand­ably regards the sec­ond Irish ref­er­en­dum in the autumn of 2009 as deci­sive for the fate of the Lis­bon Treaty.

The Euro­pean elec­tions until now have aroused lit­tle or no pub­lic inter­est. In so far as Euro­pean issues are dis­cussed dur­ing the elec­toral cam­paign, the deci­sion of the British gov­ern­ment not to hold a ref­er­en­dum on the Lis­bon Treaty and Con­ser­v­a­tive crit­i­cism of the treaty’s pro­vi­sions will no doubt be major issues. It is the offi­cial Con­ser­v­a­tive posi­tion that if the par­ty wins the next gen­er­al elec­tion (like­ly to take place in mid-2010,) and if not all the 26 oth­er mem­ber states have com­plet­ed their rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Lis­bon Treaty by that time, it will hold a ref­er­en­dum on the agree­ment. If the rat­i­fi­ca­tion process has been com­plet­ed in all mem­ber states by this time, the par­ty has promised that it would not let ‘mat­ters rest there’, though is not absolute­ly clear on what actions it would take. It should be point­ed out that a num­ber of com­men­ta­tors doubt the real will­ing­ness of a new­ly-elect­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment to devote time and polit­i­cal ener­gy to rene­go­ti­a­tion of the terms of the treaty in such cir­cum­stances, giv­en the prac­ti­cal obsta­cles to so doing.[1] While Cameron will cer­tain­ly be under pres­sure from impor­tant ele­ments of his par­ty to reverse or sub­vert the Lis­bon Treaty, his atti­tude towards Euro­pean ques­tions has been notice­ably less polem­i­cal than that of some among his imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors in the lead­er­ship of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty. His reluc­tance to com­mit him­self to any spe­cif­ic course of action in the event that all oth­er mem­ber states have com­plet­ed their rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Lis­bon Treaty may sug­gest a desire to avoid cre­at­ing unre­al­iz­able hopes for the harsh­est crit­ics of the EU with­in his own par­ty.

The appoint­ment of the new Euro­pean Com­mis­sion seems unlike­ly to fig­ure large­ly as a ques­tion in the Euro­pean elec­tions, since Prime Min­is­ter Gor­don Brown seems to want José Manuel Bar­roso, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal fam­i­ly to his own, to con­tin­ue as Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. This will effec­tive­ly damp­en any poten­tial polit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sy on the ques­tion dur­ing the Euro­pean elec­tions. Nor is the appoint­ment of the High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mon For­eign and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy a mat­ter of pub­lic dis­cus­sion in the Unit­ed King­dom, beyond occa­sion­al spec­u­la­tion that Blair may still be a can­di­date for this post, an idea appar­ent­ly con­ge­nial to those who favour an estab­lished states­man in this post, in the wake of pos­i­tive views of Nico­las Sarkozy’s han­dling of the French Presidency.[2]

In gen­er­al, the Irish rejec­tion of the Lis­bon Treaty in June, 2008, and the uncer­tain out­come of the sec­ond Irish ref­er­en­dum have rein­forced the impres­sion in the Unit­ed King­dom of a Euro­pean Union in cri­sis. This impres­sion is a cause for sat­is­fac­tion or con­cern, depend­ing upon the under­ly­ing atti­tudes of the observ­er. A speci­fici­ty of the Euro­pean debate is that very few British politi­cians, com­men­ta­tors or cit­i­zens, even those who regard them­selves as ‘pro-Euro­pean’, would be con­tent to accept the work­ings of the Euro­pean Union as an ‘inte­gra­tion process’. This start­ing-point makes it dif­fi­cult for British politi­cians, even if they are will­ing to par­tic­i­pate effec­tive­ly in the day to day work­ings of the Euro­pean Union, to devel­op long-term ‘impli­ca­tions and sce­nar­ios’ for the future of the Union.

2. Transatlantic relations renewed after President Bush: top priorities


Election of Barack Obama widely welcomed in UK

The elec­tion of Barack Oba­ma has been uni­ver­sal­ly wel­comed in the Unit­ed King­dom. Vot­ers and politi­cians hope that his admin­is­tra­tion will be more will­ing to work coop­er­a­tive­ly with its allies than was its pre­de­ces­sor; will take more seri­ous­ly than its pre­de­ces­sor the threat of man-made glob­al cli­mate change; and restore America’s tra­di­tion­al role as a pil­lar of mul­ti­lat­er­al insti­tu­tions and the inter­na­tion­al rule of law. In the Unit­ed King­dom, much atten­tion has been paid to Obama’s declared inten­tion to pros­e­cute vig­or­ous­ly the cur­rent mil­i­tary action of NATO in Afghanistan. Britain has been a major con­trib­u­tor of fight­ing troops to this action over the past five years and will no doubt be using Obama’s enthu­si­as­tic com­mit­ment to the NATO action in Afghanistan as an occa­sion to encour­age oth­er Euro­peans to fol­low the British exam­ple. John Hut­ton, Sec­re­tary of State for Defence, recent­ly urged fel­low Euro­pean pow­ers in a press inter­view to “step up to the plate”.[3] A for­mer Con­ser­v­a­tive Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer, Ken­neth Clarke, has been quot­ed as say­ing in Decem­ber 2008 that he did not believe that Oba­ma would rel­ish work­ing with an anti-Euro­pean Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment if David Cameron became Prime Min­is­ter at the next British gen­er­al election.[4] It may well be that at the next gen­er­al elec­tion British polit­i­cal par­ties try to obtain polit­i­cal advan­tage by pre­sent­ing their philoso­phies and poli­cies as being more sim­i­lar to those of Oba­ma than are those of their oppo­nents.

3. Financial crisis and challenges of global governance: the EU response


Greater emphasis on the roles of national governments

Although the Euro­pean Union has been seen over the past six months in this coun­try as a use­ful meet­ing-place of nation­al gov­ern­ments, it could not be said that the insti­tu­tions of the Euro­pean Union have been per­ceived as fig­ur­ing large­ly in the glob­al finan­cial cri­sis. Much greater empha­sis has been placed in the pub­lic con­scious­ness on the roles of nation­al gov­ern­ments, notably the British, French and Ger­man gov­ern­ments. Brown has been eager to present him­self as work­ing close­ly togeth­er with his Euro­pean col­leagues, despite Britain’s con­tin­u­ing absence from the Euro. This absence from the Euro­zone is unlike­ly to change in the fore­see­able future. British oppo­nents of the sin­gle Euro­pean cur­ren­cy and British mem­ber­ship of it have claimed in recent months to dis­cern eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal strains with­in the Euro­zone, which could put its sta­bil­i­ty under pres­sure. This is not a uni­ver­sal­ly – held view in the Unit­ed King­dom. If any­thing, British pub­lic opin­ion has been impressed by the ris­ing val­ue of the Euro against the pound over the past six months. This has not led, how­ev­er, to any appar­ent increase in the British public’s desire to join the Euro. A “BBC” poll pub­lished in Jan­u­ary 2009 found that 71 per­cent would vote against mem­ber­ship in a referendum.[5]




[1] See eg: Ian Mar­tin: EU: Do the Tories have the courage to re-nego­ti­ate after Lis­bon, Tele­graph, 8 June 2008, avail­able at: (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009); Andrew Grice: Cameron’s first 100 days, The Inde­pen­dent, 1 August 2008.
[2] Tony Bar­ber: Blair reap­pears as choice to be EU pres­i­dent, Finan­cial Times, 12 Jan­u­ary 2009, avail­able at: (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009).
[3] Richard Nor­ton-Tay­lor: Hut­ton tells Nato allies to “step up to the plate” over Afghanistan, The Guardian, 16 Jan­u­ary 2009.
[4] Alle­gra Strat­ton: Ken Clarke warned Tories Barack Oba­ma would snub a “Euroscep­tic” UK, The Guardian, 21 Jan­u­ary 2009.
[5] See: (last access: 25 Jan­u­ary 2009).