European Constitutional Reform Hangs in the Balance

By Dr Guido Montani

The EU needs more coherent governance not just to accommodate its enlargement but to assume its global responsibilities.

On November 22nd, the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) put to the vote in plenary a proposal for reform of the Lisbon treaty, prepared by five rapporteurs from the major pro-European party families, led by Guy Verhofstadt. It was a set of constitutional changes suggested by the Conference on the Future of the European Union, which was attended by many citizens, particularly young people. The parliament’s request is based on article 48 of the treaty, which provides for the convening of a European convention.

The vote was somewhat disappointing. Out of 702 members, about 100 were absent, 274 voted against, 44 abstained and only 291 voted in favour—about 40 per cent of the total. The parliament’s initiative is courageous and timely but the battle to make the governance of the union more democratic and effective will require greater commitment from European parties and citizens in the run-up to the European elections in June and during the next five-year term. The road ahead will be long and treacherous and some national governments will seek to block the path.

Moreover, some MEPs managed to tone down the initial scope of the reforms, in favour of restricting rather than abolishing the unanimity requirement in votes on foreign policy, defence and taxation. The union would thus remain incapable of expressing itself with ‘one voice’ in international politics.

This orientation is based on the illusion of a past in international politics where the crucial questions for the future of mankind—such as the choice between war and peace—were decided outside Europe. The EU emerged during the cold war, under the shelter of the United States. That era is over but some MEPs have not noticed.

Global responsibilities

The EU has been a political success recognised beyond its shores. Peace among European states, once bitter enemies, has guaranteed decades of prosperity and the realisation of fundamental freedoms: free movement of people, capital, goods and services. The union has become a world economic power, yet it is not capable of assuming global political responsibilities.

The union’s foreign policy has consisted of its gradual enlargement from the six founding countries to the current 27 (the exit of the United Kingdom was justified by the British dream of resurrecting an empire that no longer exists). Today, the union faces a new enlargement, to 35-36 countries.

Enlargement cannot be tackled without strengthening decision-making procedures: it must go hand in hand with institutional reforms. The accession of Poland and Hungary in 2004 however showed the danger of welcoming countries still reluctant to understand how the sharing of certain sovereign powers, such as over people movement, taxation and defence, increases collective and national wellbeing—that unity in diversity is a strength, not a weakness.

And enlargement and good neighbourliness do not exhaust the responsibilities Europeans—the citizens, their parties, governments and the union—have to assume towards the rest of the world. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, international politics has changed profoundly.

Multipolar world

The illusion of a unipolar world ended with the financial crisis of 2008-09 and the rise of China as an economic, technological and military power. China has been joined by India, Brazil, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, the Arab countries and other no less ambitious minor powers, such as North Korea, South Africa and Iran. In short, the world has become multipolar and US hegemony, which made it possible to create the postwar international institutions, can no longer govern the new international reality.

The existential crisis of the United Nations is evident. The Security Council, which is supposed to guarantee peace in the world, is paralysed by mutual vetoes. Globalisation, once guaranteed by the neoliberal ‘Washington consensus’, is now threatened by deglobalisation—the recomposition of value chains around a few islands dominated by some superpowers. Nationalism has returned to dominate domestic and international politics. Democracy is under threat everywhere, including in the US, where Donald Trump’s possible return to the presidency, with his isolationist foreign policy and white-supremacism domestically, encourages far-right parties everywhere.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has forced Europeans to invoke afresh the protection of the US government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has expanded with the entry of Finland and, prospectively, Sweden. When this bloody conflict comes to an end, the price Europeans will pay for their inability to tackle a European military problem on their own continent will however be a new ‘iron curtain’ in the heart of Europe.

This though Russia, with its artistic and literary culture, is a European country. While it cannot and will not become a member of the EU, Russia was a member of the Council of Europe until the aftermath of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the EU has an interest in cultivating relations of peaceful co-operation with it.

Similar considerations apply to the continuing tragedy between Palestinians and Israelis. There can be no justification for Hamas’ barbaric aggression against the citizens of Israel in October launching the current cycle of murderous violence, yet the EU has never been able, beyond financial aid, to support a serious policy to promote peace between the two peoples and the creation of two independent states.

In the wider middle east, across the Mediterranean and in Africa as a whole are countries in which the world’s major powers—the US, Russia and China—seek to extend their influence. The EU, which had repeatedly tried to create institutional co-operation with the countries of the Mediterranean and beyond, is now systematically excluded, as demonstrated by the revolt of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa towards the last French military outposts, replaced by Russian militias and Chinese investments.

International anarchy

The struggle among great powers for world supremacy is provoking international anarchy. Armed conflicts between states and bloody civil wars are happening everywhere. The ideology of nationalism is once again dominating politics, eroding the institutional foundations of peaceful co-operation between peoples and the defence of nature. As Stéphane Foucart accurately observes, ‘The retreat of the European Union on health and environmental issues is nothing more than one of the stigmata of the rightward turn of public opinion in the Old Continent, incited by the populist right that has made the fight against environmental policy one of the pillars of its policy.’

European foreign policy is prisoner of a Eurocentric vision. It is necessary to extend its field of action beyond the continent, into the dangerous terrain of the politics of the great powers. This does not mean that the EU should become a warmongering nuclear power. On the contrary, the EU must enter the world arena through global policies that aim to halt the absurd rush of the world’s sovereigns towards armed conflict and ecological disaster.

There are positive signs that need to be developed. The ‘BRICS’ summit in Joahannesburg in August launched a proposal for an ‘inclusive multilaterism’, an alternative to international disorder that could lead to a serious reform of the UN. It also addressed the monetary and economic disarray, calling for reform of the International Monetary Fund.

The EU must itself propose a reform of the postwar Bretton Woods institutions and the UN. Such a refoundation must make it possible to bind states more and more to respect international law—no longer arbitrarily interpretable by a powerful sovereign but decided by international courts.

This article was also published by Social Europe.