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Heavyweights Tackle Brussels Stalemate

  • June 23rd, 2008
  • Posted by 7thmin

ld-19608-2-reducedd.jpgOPINION: The main powers in the European Union want Irish voters overpowered and neutralised after their ‘no’ decision on expanding the EU and reorganising its system of decision-making.

Lee Duffield posted this commentary from Brussels, where the European heads of government wrapped up their mid-year summit on Friday (20.6.08). GAMES OF POWER POLITICS Running the EU is a business of power politics, important because of the way that its actions affect daily lives of citizens. They do after all spend billions of Euros each week on services ranging from road safety to regulating competition among global corporations.The European Union has a unique political structure that remains a work in progress.Formed in 1957 with six member states, now with 27, it is a growing family, and has run into problems trying to iron out faults and plan for its future growth.When it come to getting a decision that will be contested, different kinds of politicking –  big power negotiations behind the scenes, or street corner campaigns at an election –  can work against each other. That is how it happened in June 2008, when voting in Ireland, a small country with only 1% of the EU population, crated a huge impact – with the response to that voting, likely to be dramatic. BEST-LAID PLANS UPSETOn Thursday 12.6.08, 800 000 people at a referendum, a 53% majority, said no to the plan for European expansion and reform, called the Lisbon Treaty.Seven years negotiating work had gone into this plan, which took in the kind of house keeping needed for the interests of 27 countries to be managed; it was a plan to handle expansion; and it promised the bigger powers what they had been hankering for, for decades: political clout on the world stage equal to their unquestioned economic power.  Under the Lisbon Treaty, joint foreign policy-making would be consolidated, as a single European voice; the executive Commission would be made smaller, (instead of the present system where each of the 27 countries gets a Commissioner, a “federal minister”, even if portfolio responsibilities have to be virtually invented for them); legislative voting would be adjusted to minimise the blocking of decisions with endless vetoes by single countries or small coalitions, and, as a result, new member countries could be taken into the Union without crowding.It had to be ratified by all of the national governments, and they generally opted to do that through their parliaments. Ireland, a country that has profited from being in Europe, and mostly backs Europe’s expansion, had a constitutional requirement, to put such a decision to a popular vote. It was to be the only such decision committed to a popular vote, and so the referendum campaign in that country attracted a score of interests committed against an expanded Europe, from across the EU, and beyond.TARGETING THE VOTERS Ireland was targeted; it became a battleground for grievances and intentions well beyond the scope of ordinary political life.The campaigning by ‘no’ groups was well-funded and sophisticated, playing on public disinterest here, local resentments against the national government there, and various fears: for instance, that change would authorise abortion on demand, or enforce child adoption rights for all homosexuals.The country’s main parties had lined up for ‘yes’, but seemed complacent, started late and made lacklustre efforts – and that lack of lustre was the first bone of contention when the EU heads of government came together one week after the result was known. HEAVY POWERSIt was spelt out behind closed doors and then publicly enough, that the ‘no’ decision would not be accepted by the European Union partners.Main powers of the EU, by a combination of population and wealth, are France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Their representatives have indicated that the process of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty should continue.The ratification was put through the British Parliament by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to send a message, just as the Brussels summit was convened; a move welcomed especially by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. The Italian Prime  Minister, Silvio Berlasconi, made a fuss of his own, declaring that European Commissioners should stick to making recommendations to governments, and keep out of the limelight, leaving the politics to national politicians -  like himself.So far all member countries have formally approved the Lisbon reforms, and 19 have completed the process of ratification that would see it passed into law. Therefore much is at stake as the pressure is brought down on one small country, Ireland, to give ground.It has to date just one possible sympathiser: the reform package is unpopular in the Czech Republic, where a constitutional court has to rule on whether it should be accepted.WHAT KIND OF POLITICS IS THIS? What manner of politics will come into play?“Europolitics” perhaps can be explained at first by saying what it is not:NOT actually diplomacy among countries, or even multi-lateral decision-making, as at the United Nations, where even the smallest countries will get one, equal vote. NOT electoral politics, where interest groups can put pressure on politicians, looking for direct benefits for themselves on that eternal principal, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”; though to listen to the demands of organisations like the European farmers, and the promises of politicians like many in the European Parliament, some of that tradition continues.NOT a federal model, where states, especially if in a minority, defer to what the central government decides on issues within its domain, given to it under a constitution.NOT a confederation, where the member governments generally do what they like.The system set up at Brussels is one where, formally, decisions have to be researched and put forward, in rational terms, by the executive Commission; to be approved through the directly-elected Parliament, and the European Council made up of Ministers from the member governments. What might be expected in this setting can be best described as heavying by the heavier players.SIZE COUNTSSize counts and resources count.Looking back to European refusals to join the Iraq war, the then French President, Jacques Chirac, somewhat let the cat out the bag, publicly warning debutante members like Poland to stick with the team and not go with the Americans.Implied was a threat that money from central funds to bolster national economies would find it harder to find its way to Eastern Europe.Somewhere within the formal framework the consultations will be taking place now, to find a way to steady wavering parties, and get up a generally acceptable form of compromise. One proposal, to allow each country to keep a Commissioner permanently on the executive, like now, was explicitly dismissed by senior officials at the Brussels gathering last week.Whatever is offered will be set against an uncompromising stand on key points, the main one being, the Lisbon treaty needs to go through.That being made plain to the government of Ireland, it has been invited to talk, and come back to a new summit, with detailed proposals, in October.WHAT NOW?A leader among the hard liners setting out to be hard men on this is France’s Nicolas Sarkozy.He has a trip booked to Ireland soon, for talks with the government. In July he will take up the influential post of President of the European Council, so he will organise and chair the next summit.At Brussels he made known his backing for the Treaty plan as it stands, declaring there could be no further building and expansion of the European Union, however desirable, unless the plan were put in place. Where do voters fit into all this?As champions of the mooted change in the EU often point out, it is ruled by elected politicians, whether in the ministerial Council, or the Parliament. It is a problem though, that the business of the massive, supranational, fourth tier of government – the European Union  — is too complicated and vast for voters to easily follow and influence.It is democratic; yet, at important times, the question comes up: is it, and can it become, democratic enough?Picture: Lee Duffield, Brussels EU summit, 20.6.08