Looking back at the failed referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, the strongest sensation is just how close the whole process came to disaster. The Convention and the subsequent IGC produced a carefully written set of amendments to the institutions, balancing out all the different interests in a complex and sophisticated manner, but the same degree of attention was not given to how that treaty might be ratified. The enlargement processes of 1994 and 2003 showed signs of having been steered and not merely left to unfold. The ratification of the Constitutional treaty, by contrast, demonstrated no such strategic thinking. The off-again on-again approach to holding a referendum in both Britain and France is the clearest possible proof of this: it would have been much better to have decided to hold a referendum at the outset and geared everything else around that.
If nothing else, 2007 left the strategically muddled thinking behind. For whatever else the criticisms that might be made of the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Lisbon, they were conducted with a ruthless focus on the necessary end-game, namely the need to complete the ratification process without further upset. There were complaints at the time that the so-called sherpa method of negotiation (nominated senior officials given a far-reaching mandate to reach a conclusion) was less open than the previous Convention, and also that it produced a less far-reaching result (and these two phenomena may be connected), but faced with the urgent practical obligation to reach a deal that could be accepted by the public, it is hard now to be quite so critical as we were then.
A more ambitious idea of Europe might well be preferable, but it needs to be embodied not only in the treaty that is signed but also in the communications that support that treaty. If national governments are not willing to talk about the importance and urgency of the next steps in European integration, perhaps it is as well that they do not attempt to take them. In the gap between what governments do and what they are willing to say lies a great deal of risk for the European Union. The more prosaic reality is something we should be grateful for.
We are now in for a period of politics that will be a peculiar combination of the anonymous and the intellectually shaming. In some countries, ratification will be simple and straight-forward (in Hungary, it has already happened); in others, it will be ghastly and humiliating. We British will have to put up with the spectacle of yet more anti-European myth-making about the treaty, such as the claim that this will be the last treaty ever needed because of its novel future amendment procedures (read Nigel Lawson in the Spectator on this theme here).
The combination of apathy and misunderstanding is a dangerous one, even if Gordon Brown’s parliamentary majority means that ratification of the treaty is all but assured. The heart of the treaty is the potential to create a much more democratic Europe, but that potential depends on understanding and enthusiasm if it is to be realised. That was probably too much to hope for in the year 2007, but at least we have left the muddle and chaos of the preceding years behind.
Potential is the key word to describe the biggest change on the British domestic political scene, namely the arrival of the Scottish National party in government in Edinburgh. The SNP themselves see their election victory as a staging post on the route towards independence, and will seek to use the opportunities presented by being in government to chip away at the ties that keep England and Scotland together.
The unionist parties might draw comfort from the experience in Quebec and Catalonia where separatist governments are forced by a more reticent public opinion to settle for changes within the current system rather than a fundamental change of the system altogether. Polls which show that the SNP is more popular than Scottish independence lend support for this theory, but it would be a substantial risk to rely on it too much. They would be better advised to make the case for continued reforms themselves, rather than to leave it to the nationalists alone.
The debate about Scotland might also lead to constitutional reform south of the border, too. Gordon Brown, who took over in the summer, has often expressed interest in constitutional issues in a way that his predecessor never did, so there is the hope for progress, but in many fields Gordon Brown has promised more than he has delivered and, feeling beleaguered after a series of crises and disasters, he may well be tempted to play it safe.
Turning to the global level, the most striking change in the last 12 months was the ability of governments to negotiate an agreement on climate change at Bali but not to complete the negotiations on world trade started at Doha. In itself, the agreement might not amount to much: it is still based largely on national sovereignty and does not yet convey a willingness to confront the true scale of the economic changes needed if climate change is properly addressed, but it indicates that a new set of priorities is coming to the fore around the world. Nobody believes that environmental protection can be achieved in one country alone, so that in itself is a positive step. What matters is turning it into concrete policies, which in turn depend on reliable institutions. The world is still a long way from those institutions, but we are noticeably closer than we were 12 months ago.
Lastly, no Federal Union review of the year would be complete without mentioning the euro. Cyprus and Malta have joined the eurozone from the beginning of 2008, but Britain is still, sadly, a long way off. Whereas the other issues we have looked at showed noticeable signs of progress during 2007 and the potential for more in the coming year, the British relationship with the euro remains distant and offshore. I hope that, in 12 months’ time, I can write something more positive, but I do not expect so.
Nevertheless, with the ratification of the Lisbon treaty and the potential renewal of the EU’s democratic processes, 2008 offers plenty to be going on with. Happy New Year.
This article was written by Richard Laming, secretary of Federal Union. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.