New post and institutions: building-blocks for a European Superstate?

European institutional questions are usually discussed in the United Kingdom primarily in ideological rather than practical terms. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty led at the end of 2009 to a certain amount of polemical discussion in this country concerning the new posts and institutions set up by the Treaty. The almost exclusive focus of this discussion was however the question of how far these posts and insitutions should or should not be seen as building-blocks for a European superstate. This polemical discussion has now largely disappeared. The day to day workings of the posts and institutions set up by the Lisbon Treaty, on which the questionnaire concentrates, have proved to be of limited interest in the United Kingdom, except to specialists. British political discussion over the past six months has moreover been largely monopolised by the general election, in the campaign for which European questions played only a subordinate role. These circumstances militating against detailed discussion of European institutional questions in the United Kingdom will inevitably be reflected in the following answers, which may well be unsatisfactory, but are not on that account inaccurate.

Presidency of the European Council

There is nothing in the United Kingdom which could remotely be described as an “assessment” of Van Rompuy’s work. A widely-reported speech of personal criticism against Van Rompuy by the British Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage earlier this year aroused a certain amount of public comment at the time, but led to no serious general discussion of Van Rompuy’s performance of his functions. At most, Farage was censured for his impoliteness towards Van Rompuy.11M. White: Farage was rude but right about Van Rompuy, Guardian blog, 25 February 2010. British journalists who have followed closely the evolution of the Greek crisis know and have reported that Van Rompuy has attempted over the past six months to coordinate the European Council’s reaction to this crisis. They are also aware and have also reported that he has had limited success in doing so. These same specialists await with interest Van Rompuy’s proposals for improving the governance of the Eurozone, to be presented in outline at the European Council of June 2010 and adopted formally in October 2010. If he is able to produce substantial reforms which the European Council is willing to adopt, then his personal prestige and that of his office will certainly be enhanced. Any increase in such prestige, or indeed in the prestige of Catherine Ashton, will reinforce the growing perception of those few who follow these matters in the United Kingdom that the rotating presidency of the European Union is now primarily a technical rather than political function. If Van Rompuy deals with the single currency and Catherine Ashton deals with the Union’s external relations, there is little of high European policy left for the rotating presidency to administer.

The High Representative

In her new office, Catherine Ashton has made little impact on British public or political opinion. The widespread belief that she obtained her post only because her colleague David Miliband was unwilling to accept it has undoubtedly served to harm her credibility in British political circles.22The Economist: Why did Lady Ashton take the EU’s foreign policy job?, 25 January 2010. Occasional newspaper articles have referred to the low esteem in which she is supposedly held by certain national governments, but the incoming coalition government has undertaken to work constructively with her, despite her membership of the Labour Party.33G. Meade: Baroness Ashton’s EU role “gives Britain a powerful voice”, The Independent, 9 November 2009. Much suspicion nevertheless remains of Catherine Ashton and her post from the radical Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, which sees her new functions simply as undermining the independence of British foreign policy.44A. Pierce: How Cathy Ashton became the laughing stock of the EU, Daily Mail online, 9 March 2010. To analyse critically Catherine Ashton’s role in terms of her dealings on the one hand with the Commission and on the other with the Council would be an effort beyond the capacity of British public and political opinion. In the general British debate on European issues, little or no distinction is made between the various institutions of the Union, a confusion which is probably more marked in the United Kingdom than elsewhere, but certainly not confined to this country.

European External Action Service

At the level of public discussion in the United Kingdom, the European External Action Service (EEAS) retains something of the image attributed to it by critics of the Lisbon Treaty, namely as a feared replacement for national diplomatic services in the context of a general movement towards a European “superstate”.55Waterfield, Daily Telegraph, 29 March 2009; B. Waterfield: More than 50 EU embassies open across the world, Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2010. Against this alarmist analysis, pragmatic economic or administrative arguments about the desirability of the new institution have made little popular headway. In so far as the precise workings of the EEAS exist in the collective British political perception, it is exclusively seen as a representative, not a coordinating body. This perception is reflected in the phrase usually used to refer to the new body, the “European diplomatic service.” Within British governmental, or more precisely official circles, there is however considerable hope and expectation that the United Kingdom will able to play a leading, even dominant role within the new service. British officials are encouraged in that view by the predominantly intergovernmental nature of the structures for European external policy envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty.

European Citizens’ Initiative

The European Citizens’ Initative plays no role in the current British debate on the European Union. It has emphatically not yet fulfilled the hope of some among the drafters of the European Convention and the Lisbon Treaty that the initiative would act as a bridge of democratic consultation between the European institutions and the European citizens.

    Footnotes

  • 1M. White: Farage was rude but right about Van Rompuy, Guardian blog, 25 February 2010.
  • 2The Economist: Why did Lady Ashton take the EU’s foreign policy job?, 25 January 2010.
  • 3G. Meade: Baroness Ashton’s EU role “gives Britain a powerful voice”, The Independent, 9 November 2009.
  • 4A. Pierce: How Cathy Ashton became the laughing stock of the EU, Daily Mail online, 9 March 2010.
  • 5Waterfield, Daily Telegraph, 29 March 2009; B. Waterfield: More than 50 EU embassies open across the world, Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2010.

The reports focus on a reporting period from December 2009 until May 2010. This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March and April 2010. Most of the 31 reports were delivered in May 2010.

The EU-27 Watch No. 9 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.