Voluntary cooperation

President Putin of Russia meets the foreign policy leadership of the EU (picture Presidential Press and Information Office)

The fact that the Lisbon treaty is currently going through parliament has given Eurosceptics a new opportunity to object to the fact that the EU is based on supranational institutions and the rule of law. They say that they would prefer “voluntary cooperation” instead.

But at the heart of the case for federalism is the recognition that voluntary cooperation between sovereign entities is not enough. It might work from time to time, but it does not work reliably. That is the whole point of the rule of law: it compels people (or countries) to do things they might not otherwise choose to do in the wider longer-term interest of everyone.

An interesting note by Open Europe on the foreign policy aspects of the Lisbon treaty illustrates this issue perfectly. (Read it here.) They note that

“The debate about what kind of foreign policy the EU should have is a good example of the difference between an EU of voluntary cooperation and one that tries to create artificial consensus by majority voting.”

And they seek to discuss this question using a real-life example:

“To give a very topical example, a number of EU states remain vehemently opposed to EU recognition of Kosovo’s independence, mindful of the effect this would have on their own domestic separatist movements. Does the fact these Member States are in a minority invalidate their right to pursue a policy they see as integral to their national interest?”

The answer right now is no. The EU takes major foreign policy decisions – for example, on Kosovo – by unanimity: there is no unanimity on this question so there is no decision. (This position remains the case under the Lisbon treaty, by the way.)

But saying that it is up to each country to decide for itself whether or not to recognise the independence of Kosovo does not solve the fundamental problem. Not only is it integral to the Spanish national interest that Spain does not recognise Kosovan independence (to take a hypothetical example), it is integral to the Spanish national interest that France and Germany do not recognise Kosovan independence either, if the Spanish are concerned that Kosovan independence might start to give the Catalans and the Basques ideas.

But a system of foreign policy decision-making founded on the notion of case-by-case voluntary cooperation will never give the Spanish what they need. They need a means of policy-making that gives them an influence over the decisions that affect them: isn’t that what democracy means?

Better would be the collective recognition that, in the end, European countries have got interests in common around the world and that they have to work together to protect them. The interests of the different countries are not always identical, which means that compromises will have to be made and that no country can always have everything its own way, but nevertheless there is enough in common between the different countries to make a common system preferable.

The whole development of the EU’s foreign policy system, since the creation of European Political Cooperation, has been founded on this idea, tempered by the realisation that it represents a profound change to the way in which countries have been used to operating and therefore cannot be introduced quickly.

The question that remains to be asked is whether the consensus that arises out of the European decision-making system is “artificial”. The answer is surely no, because the different European countries genuinely do have interests in common.

The Open Europe note on European foreign policy anticipates this point and goes on to list a series of issues where they say the European response is inadequate. The response to such a list is to say that European foreign policy is still a work in progress, but founded on the conviction that European countries will have a stronger voice in the world together than they will apart. In foreign policy as in everything else, the EU does not create common interests: it is the recognition of common interests that already exist.

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