Thursday, 19 June 2008

Lisbon Treaty: Double edge of UK ratification

The UK House of Lords resisted the temptation to postpone ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon and approved the government bill. This puts the number of ratifying member states at 19 out of 27.

See, for instance, the BBC report:

Prime minister Gordon Brown can participate in the European Council discussions strengthened by the decision. UK ratification sends a signal to the seven member states, where the ratification process is still open. British anti-EU and pro-referendum campaigners will of course do their utmost to stir up emotions against the government and the European Union, both unpopular in the realm.

But the situation is far from a resounding victory for people who believe in the necessity of EU reform.

In its present form, the Treaty of Lisbon is legally dead. Ireland would have to change its opinion in a new referendum either to approve the Lisbon Treaty or to scrap the need for referendums. Neither looks likely, since the reasons for popular rejection have left the government clueless as to the potential remedies. There is no effective prescription for malaise, at least in the realm of treaties.

Ideas have been floated about soothing declarations, but the effect might be the opposite, hardening opposition. The Irish constitutional setting surrounding referendums simply makes the country ungovernable in certain respects, and without a real voice in European affairs.

This means that the United Kingdom retains the option to scrap the Lisbon Treaty at any given moment, but it has, at least temporarily, put a dampener on aspirations to build a more effective European Union. In spite of popular illusions of a looming European super-state, British governments have effectively managed to reduce the scope of reform at each stage during and since the European Convention.

As long as it remains on the inside track, Britain can more effectively defend a political union in name, but built on intergovernmental sand. On the outside or on an outer track, tenacious UK obstructionism might fail, strengthening French and German resolve to move ahead, possibly leading to a two-speed Europe, leaving the UK outside the core.

Crudely put: The British strategy is pissing in on the inside.

As long as soul-searching and salvage operations continue, the Treaty of Nice remains in force, hardly a catastrophe for Gordon Brown. The risk, from his point of view, is if the frustration of integrationist countries turns into decisive action to remedy the fatal flaws of the existing European Union, if necessary by creating a new one, more effective but with fewer members.

Until now, inertia and fudge have served British governments well, but to have the cake and eat it too, a vigilant watch is needed. The UK Parliament has handed Gordon Brown a passport to the inner circles.

Ralf Grahn