Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Will Germany have its way with Europe?

Merkel to present short ‘foundation treaty’ at summit to fast-track agreement by end of year

According to Welt, the outline of the new EU treaty is becoming clear, with Berlin preparing to present a short ‘foundation treaty’ of six to eight pages, listing the most important points of the new treaty. There are suggestions that Angela Merkel may split the original treaty in two. EU diplomats, are cited saying they hope “at least 75% of the work” should be finished by the June summit. Both treaties should then be ready for ratification in October, much earlier than originally planned. An intergovernmental conference will clarify details from July to December. The German Presidency is reported to see Britain and Poland as the biggest barriers to a new treaty, with Britain under Gordon Brown being seen as the tougher of the two.

The Sun and the Evening Standard report that Tony Blair yesterday came under pressure from Labour MPs not to sign away new powers at the 21-22 June summit. Austin Mitchell said “If there is any surrender of sovereignty there should be a referendum on it.” The BBC reports that former Europe Minister Dennis Macshane accused supporters of a referendum of having a “bigger agenda”, arguing that “They can't call for full withdrawal so the referendum on any new treaty is the next best thing.” He conceded however that "Europe is working well economically and frankly at times I wish the constitutional debate would go away, but unfortunately we do need a clearer rule book on Europe." The UK Government meanwhile denied being isolated in treaty negotiations.

The IHT reports that EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso yesterday said that the new EU treaty would probably revive controversial aspects of the rejected constitution, including a new permanent EU president, a foreign minister and a revamped voting system that would reduce national vetoes and diminish the power of countries like Britain to block proposals. Barroso said that allowing some opt-outs from certain parts of the treaty could be the only way to get it passed "As a rule, to have opt-outs is not good. But if it is the solution, I will not be against it." He accepted that the treaty could spur a public backlash, but warned that failure to get agreement would be “a real threat to the credibility of the EU."

Open Europe Director Neil O’Brien appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, arguing that the UK Government are “negotiating in secret – they’ve already said they won’t hold a referendum on the final text of it – and we think that’s incredibly undemocratic, because this ‘new’ Constitutional treaty really contains exactly the same things as the old one”.

Paul Stephenson from Open Europe has an article on Conservative Home, warning that the UK Government’s much-reported “red lines” are a distraction from the real concessions being made. “The story for domestic consumption is that although the talks are awfully tough, the Government is successfully handbagging its EU partners into submission in the negotiations… This is mostly baloney. By focusing the attention on a few of the more contentious issues, voters and the media lose sight of everything that the Government is giving up without a fight. Most notably: the creation of a powerful new EU President; a new EU Foreign Minister who would ‘automatically’ speak for us at the UN; and a new voting system which would reduce the UK’s voting strength by about 30%.” [emphasis mine]

Gideon Rachman, writing in the FT, argues “The words in the constitution will change. But the substance will remain the same.” He dismisses the arguments of those opposed to a referendum on the new treaty, writing that “If the French and Dutch had voted in favour of the constitution, there is no doubt that their verdict would have been hailed as a historic endorsement of political union in Europe. It is only a ‘No’ vote that was taken as a sign of deep confusion.”

He concludes that “The sceptics have always argued that the Union is elitist and undemocratic. By disregarding the voters and pushing on regardless, the EU will make their point for them. Such a course of action will merely deepen the crisis of legitimacy that the EU constitution was originally advertised as solving… The awkward squad of Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic will be accused of putting the Union in danger. But the real long-term threat will be posed by those who insist that the EU must press ahead with ‘ever closer union’, while blithely disregarding the increasingly obvious disenchantment of ordinary Europeans.”

Writing in the Independent, Simon Carr’s sketch picks up on Margaret Beckett’s performance before the EU scrutiny committee last week: “In the matter of the amending treaty that will replace the constitution she wouldn't say anything”, denying that there was anything to be discussed, claiming that there was “no debate” to comment on. For more, see Open Europe’s blog.

EUobserver Independent FT Rachman FT Peel IHT Conservative Home BBC Daily Politics (15 minutes in) BBC Welt

Open Europe research: “The new treaty: what will it mean, and do we need a referendum?

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