21st Jan 2018

EU legal expert casts doubt on new fiscal treaty

A legal expert who helped write several EU treaties - Jean-Claude Piris - has warned that the new 'fiscal compact' will not be enough to stop the financial crisis.

"This little piece of paper being discussed now is a good step, but it will not be enough to solve the problems. More steps are needed," Piris said at a think-tank event in Brussels on Tuesday (10 January), referring to the intergovernmental treaty on fiscal discipline to be signed by 26 EU leaders in March.

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The 68-year-old Frenchman has a deep knowledge of EU law after serving as director general of the EU Council's legal service between 1988 and 2010. He also helped to write the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties, the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty.

Piris made the remarks at an event to launch his new book The Future of Europe - Towards a Two-Speed EU?

He urged the formation of a "temporarily avantgarde" group outside the existing EU Treaty to tackle the crisis. He also said national parliaments should get more involved in the reform process in Brussels to give it democratic legitimacy.

"Now we are in an acute crisis ... If we are doing nothing, maybe we are going towards irrelevance," he said. "For the 17 [eurozone members] it is a vital interest to secure the euro. They are obliged to move ahead."

He noted that the biggest difficulty in getting the two-speed structure to work will be the formation of a coherent avantgarde group. "But it is possible now, because Europe is committed to austerity," he said.

The book-launch attracted such a big audience that the organiser, Paul Adamson from the Brussels-based think-tank The Centre, had to move it from the original venue to the auditorium of the ING Bank, prompting him to crack the joke that banks - widely blamed for the crisis - are good for something.

For his part, Charles Grant, the head of the London-based policy shop, the Centre for European Reform, told the meeting "it is quite likely Britain will leave the EU within 10 years."

The UK in December vetoed making the fiscal reforms at 27-level, forcing the other member states to launch the 26-level intergovernmental project.

Grant said that when British Prime Minister David Cameron eventually steps down, eurosceptic Conservative Party personalities like London mayor Boris Johnson might initiate a referendum on British EU membership.

He added that a two-speed EU with a separate treaty for eurozone members might work but would undermine the European Commission in its basic tasks of protecting the interests of smaller member states and launching EU-level legal proposals.

Poul Skytte Christoffersen, Denmark's ambassador to Belgium and its former envoy to the EU, also voiced concern on the EU split.

"The thesis is that one group will move forward and others will follow in good time. But I'm not sure it works. The experience from Denmark is that it does not work like that," he said. He underlined that he is not speaking for the Danish EU presidency.

He warned that a two-speed EU risks alienating the former Communist member states: "It would be a pity to place these new countries in a second class now. We risk losing results of the past 10 years' work."

Christoffersen said the current EU commission under Jose Manuel Barroso is a shadow of its former self under Romano Prodi some 10 years ago.

He explained that the Prodi college used to see commissioners get involved in policy-making, forming coalitions and meeting frequently. But the Barroso college works by presidential fiat and has become a kind of intergovernmental body.

"Today, basically everything is being done to avoid a real discussion at the level of the college. It is seen as some sort of failure by the top-hierarchy in the commission if the commissioners are to have a real discussion - not to speak about voting," Christoffersen said.

He added that the situation could improve with different people in charge. "It can change again with [new] personalities," he added.

Softer draft of fiscal treaty opens door for UK

Less stringent constitutional demands, a weaker role for the EU commission and a provision allowing the UK to join at a later stage are among the most recent changes to the draft treaty on fiscal discipline.

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