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: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/iain_martin/blog/2008/06/08/eu_do_the_tories_have_the_courage_to_renegotiate_after_lisbon (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: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c919a4b4-e04a-11dd-9ee9-000077b07658.html (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: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7806936.stm (last access: 25 January 2009).