Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Decisions on the Lisbon Treaty
Corriere della Sera - October 2nd 2009

This is an important week for European politics, and especially for the politics of my own country, Britain. The reasons lie across the sea from us in Ireland and across the channel in Germany, in the choices being made by voters there.

            Today, a couple of million Irish voters will seal the fate of the Lisbon treaty, the document that hardly anyone has read and which will determine the powers and institutional structure of the European Union for at least the next decade. Having rejected the treaty in a referendum last year, the Irish are being sent back to the polls in order to give the right answer—from a European point of view—bribed to do so only by some "clarifications" about what the treaty will do and by a promise that Ireland can still send a commissioner to do a non-job for plush pay in Brussels.

            When the draft EU constitution was published in 2004, I was editor of The Economist, and we recommended that it be filed straight in the nearest rubbish bin. When it was finalised by governments, we recommended that all European voters should reject it. Yet today, when the Irish hold their lonely vote, under the shadow of their deep recession and the fear that but for the EU the global financial crisis might have hit them as hard as it did Iceland, I hope (and expect) they will vote yes. I also hope, but don´t entirely expect, that the British Conservative Party will also give up their own opposition to Lisbon.

            Why? Part of the reason, I confess, is boredom. The thought of having to join in any more discussion about EU institutions and voting mechanisms leaves me cold, especially when economic crises, Iranian nuclear-weapons programmes and rising Chinese power offer far more important topics for Europeans to think about.

            Another reason, though, is embarrassment: if the EU matters, and I think it does, then for its workings to be held up by just a handful of voters in one of Europe´s smallest countries, and by a handful of Czech senators who keep challenging the treaty in their constitutional court, is absurd. Personally, I still don´t like the treaty as it represents a missed opportunity to modernise the EU, and, more technically, offers too many opportunities to the European Court of Justice to add to federal powers in future. But since 25 governments have accepted it, and since their peoples have not shown that they care much about the treaty, it is time to give up.

            If the Irish do vote yes, it will pose a tough choice for David Cameron, the leader of Britain´s Conservative Party. He is likely to win Britain´s general election, which is due by June 2010, and his party is opposed to the Lisbon treaty. Yet a good measure of leadership is whether you choose the right battles to fight. A good measure of statesmanship is whether you have a clear idea of your nation´s interests. In my view, a British fight to disrupt the Lisbon treaty would fail on both measures.

            The big trends in the EU are moving in both a British and a Conservative direction. France´s Nicolas Sarkozy is pushing a carbon tax of the sort that David Cameron also advocates, and is now promising cuts in business taxes. European policies are not being shaped by the hated, unelected European Commission, but strictly by deals between governments, of the sort with which Britain feels comfortable. But the biggest proof can be found in Germany´s election last Sunday, when the country that has suffered the biggest drop in GDP of any of the major economies, rejected the left and instead voted in a centre-right coalition that brings together Angela Merkel´s Christian Democrats with the Free Democratic Party, the closest thing Germany has to a liberal, pro-market, grouping.

            For a new Tory government in Britain, the European scene could not be better, with right-wing parties in power in both France and Germany, which share similar views to them on important issues such as defence, Afghanistan, environmental policy and even—despite Chancellor Merkel´s pre-election bail-out for the Opel car company—the European single market. So to provoke an argument with such potential allies over a boring institutional treaty, which no one else (including Italians) cares about, would be madness.


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