Since the European Council of June, 2007, the British government has asserted with increasing insistence that it will not hold a referendum on the European Reform Treaty likely to be signed at the European Council in December. Its opponents argue with equally increasing fervour that the likely contents of the new Treaty will be so similar to those of the abandoned European Constitutional Treaty that the British referendum promised by Mr Blair for that original text should logically also be conceded for the new document. This is a specifically British debate, at least as much Britain’s current position within the European Union as about the future supposedly ushered in by the Reform Treaty.
In reality, the Reform Treaty will be a relatively small step in the process of the European Union’s institutional development, marking neither a major development in that process nor a substantial change of direction. Those generally content with the present condition of the European Union will find little in it either to disconcert them or arouse immoderate enthusiasm. Those fundamentally opposed to the current workings of the European Union will rightly regard the Reform Treaty as another step in the European integrative process which began with the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Underlying the surprisingly speedy settlement reached by the European Council in June was a definite sense among many heads of government that confidence in the European Union, both externally and internally, was being undermined by institutional debates which were not themselves of crucial importance. A relatively compressed ratification procedure, with only a very limited number of referendums appearing likely, will have been a considerable attraction for many heads of government of the Reform Treaty they have now agreed in outline.
If in itself the Reform Treaty will not mark any significant watershed in the European Union’s development, the political process from which it arises is one full of lessons for the Union’s future. For those most involved in the European Constitutional Convention which produced the first draft of the European Constitutional Treaty,the agreement of the European Council in June will have come as an especial disappointment, since so much of the systematising and consolidating work of the Convention to produce the Constitutional Treaty has now fallen by the wayside. One lesson that might be drawn from that chastening experience is that for the foreseeable future it will be very difficult for the European Union to proceed other than incrementally in its institutional deepening. In a Union of twenty seven members, the lowest common denominator may well be the only basis on which ratifiable agreements can be achieved.
Those member states of the European Union which would ideally have preferred to go further, faster in their institutional integration even than the original Constitutional Treaty are unlikely be able to do so within the framework of the European Union for many years to come, or perhaps ever, unless they resort to those arrangements for “enhanced co-operation” which the Reform Treaty contains. The political and technical difficulties associated with such arrangements are, however, still formidable. It may well be that even the most integration-minded member states will now be content over the coming decade to make the greatest possible use of the substantial integrationist momentum already contained in such instruments as the Schengen Area, Justice and Home Affairs and the Eurozone, all instruments on which the United Kingdom can only exercise a limited restraining influence. Nor should the integrative possibilities of the European internal market (broadly defined) be forgotten. Environmental, trade and energy policy are all areas of growing competence for the European Union. Those who feared or hoped that the French and Dutch referendums of 2005 marked an end to the integrative process which as the heart of the European Union are unlikely to see their hopes or fears confirmed by the realities of the coming years.
Brendan Donnelly is Director of the Federal Trust and Chair of Federal Union. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union or the Federal Trust. 9 September 2007