Impression of a European Union in crisis

United Kingdom
Federal Trust for Education and Research
 
In the United Kingdom, the future of the Lisbon Treaty is a subject which currently is only rarely discussed in either public or political circles. The government, having completed the parliamentary ratification of the treaty last summer, sees no political interest in further controversy on the matter; the Conservative Party, the main opposition party, has taken a strategic decision to speak less about European issues than it did before David Cameron became its leader; and public opinion is concerned by domestic and international economic questions to the exclusion of all other political topics. British public and political opinion in any case and understandably regards the second Irish referendum in the autumn of 2009 as decisive for the fate of the Lisbon Treaty.
 
The European elections until now have aroused little or no public interest. In so far as European issues are discussed during the electoral campaign, the decision of the British government not to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and Conservative criticism of the treaty’s provisions will no doubt be major issues. It is the official Conservative position that if the party wins the next general election (likely to take place in mid-2010,) and if not all the 26 other member states have completed their ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by that time, it will hold a referendum on the agreement. If the ratification process has been completed in all member states by this time, the party has promised that it would not let ‘matters rest there’, though is not absolutely clear on what actions it would take. It should be pointed out that a number of commentators doubt the real willingness of a newly-elected Conservative government to devote time and political energy to renegotiation of the terms of the treaty in such circumstances, given the practical obstacles to so doing.[1] While Cameron will certainly be under pressure from important elements of his party to reverse or subvert the Lisbon Treaty, his attitude towards European questions has been noticeably less polemical than that of some among his immediate predecessors in the leadership of the Conservative Party. His reluctance to commit himself to any specific course of action in the event that all other member states have completed their ratification of the Lisbon Treaty may suggest a desire to avoid creating unrealizable hopes for the harshest critics of the EU within his own party.
 
The appointment of the new European Commission seems unlikely to figure largely as a question in the European elections, since Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems to want José Manuel Barroso, a representative of a different political family to his own, to continue as President of the European Commission. This will effectively dampen any potential political controversy on the question during the European elections. Nor is the appointment of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy a matter of public discussion in the United Kingdom, beyond occasional speculation that Blair may still be a candidate for this post, an idea apparently congenial to those who favour an established statesman in this post, in the wake of positive views of Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the French Presidency.[2]
 
In general, the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in June, 2008, and the uncertain outcome of the second Irish referendum have reinforced the impression in the United Kingdom of a European Union in crisis. This impression is a cause for satisfaction or concern, depending upon the underlying attitudes of the observer. A specificity of the European debate is that very few British politicians, commentators or citizens, even those who regard themselves as ‘pro-European’, would be content to accept the workings of the European Union as an ‘integration process’. This starting-point makes it difficult for British politicians, even if they are willing to participate effectively in the day to day workings of the European Union, to develop long-term ‘implications and scenarios’ for the future of the Union.




[1] See eg: Ian Martin: EU: Do the Tories have the courage to re-negotiate after Lisbon, Telegraph, 8 June 2008, available at: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/iain_martin/blog/2008/06/08/eu_do_the_torie... (last access: 25 January 2009); Andrew Grice: Cameron’s first 100 days, The Independent, 1 August 2008.


[2] Tony Barber: Blair reappears as choice to be EU president, Financial Times, 12 January 2009, available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c919a4b4-e04a-11dd-9ee9-000077b07658.html (last access: 25 January 2009).