28th Feb 2020


The future of Europe is much too serious to be left to wise men

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT -The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, told an audience the other day that the European Union would face no further constitutional reform for ten years. I think he meant it to sound like a long time - the foreseeable future in fact - certainly longer than the time in office of most of those who were sitting around the Lisbon tables last weekend concluding the negotiations on the Reform Treaty.

What he did not say, of course, is that even if we assume that the Reform Treaty will be ratified successfully - and we should beware of counting constitutional chickens before all the ratification eggs are hatched - it will have taken ten years to have completed the task. From the early preparations for the Intergovernmental Conference that led to the Treaty of Nice in the late 1990s, to the time when the Reform Treaty will come into force will have been ten years.

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  • "We all like the thought of approaching some oracle that will make up our minds for us, painlessly, tell us what to do without our having to think" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

There is no reason to suspect that future constitutional changes will occupy any less time. Indeed, they may occupy more time because additional countries will be involved and the next round of changes will, in all probability, be even more far reaching. Which means, of course, that if we start reflecting on the next round of constitutional change now, we may still only just be in time to meet the 2017 rendezvous.

In a sense this is what President Sarkozy of France has been trying to commence for a little time now with his proposal to establish a Committee of Wise Men to look at where the EU should be heading. Its terms of reference would cover at least two major areas: how many (and which) countries should the Union eventually embrace; and, secondly, what institutions with what competences would a union of this size require in order to function successfully at home and abroad.

These are questions that many of the Union's citizens have been asking themselves for quite a time. A larger number of folk, with little desire to be involved in such matters, have nevertheless noticed that the Union has become bigger recently and wonder what this might mean for their way of life. They are concerned by what seems to be an irreversible drift, salami slice by salami slice, into a future that they have had no say in shaping.

Exploring the future

Mr Sarkozy's plan for a Committee of the Wise is therefore welcome. Politicians and others should surely be exploring and explaining what sort of future Union we want and how this will relate to our immediate neighbours and to the wider globalised world.

His initiative, however, has come under suspicion from the Commission which sees it as a device to undermine progress with Turkey's accession. Mr Olli Rehn, the Enlargement Commissioner, took him to task this week on just this basis.

Indeed this may be one of Mr Sarkozy's motivations; all the same it doesn't negate the value of trying to think through one particular policy - Turkish accession - against the wider backdrop of the sort of Union that might be desirable in twenty years time. It is almost inevitable that we shall have to make sacrifices and compromises at some point, whether Turkey accedes to the Union, or not.

So it is odd that the Commission should be reluctant to see the long-term strategy explored. Instead, on Turkish accession as on much else, it seems to be is a case of 'heads down, bully and shove' - get the policy through and move on quickly before the democratic consequence arrives.

Yet it is undeniable that the accession of Turkey would have all sorts of consequences for the Union, as indeed it would for Turkey. One of those consequences would be to make it very much harder to close the European door to other states - such as the Ukraine in particular - that might also wish to join in due course. Turkey and the Ukraine together would have an even more dramatic effect on the Union.

To write this is not to be 'against' Turkish accession or the accession of any other state. It is just a plea to explore and debate the consequences at a distance in time that makes the exploration of alternative options feasible. After all the size and structure of the Union is a profound constitutional matter.

Politics rather than wisdom

The Commission, or so it seems, shows little sign of wanting to engage in this debate, so we are left with Mr Sarkozy's 'Wise Men.' But as soon as we look at alternative long-term options - a wide, but loose union, for instance, versus a smaller but more deeply integrated partnership of states - we are in the realm of politics rather than the realm of wisdom.

The Wise conclusions, I suspect, will depend to a very large extent on the politics of the wise men and women chosen. And here lies a difficulty. Balance the Committee and you will either get a weak and fussy compromise or a minority report. Handpick the Committee and you face accusations of partiality.

In any case from where should these wise persons be drawn? We can expect different views from the Anglo-Saxons and the continentals and between Eastern Europe and the west. Politicians and business folk will differ as will the views of those from small states and large.

There is also a danger in the sobriquet 'wise.' By the time someone comes to be deemed 'wise' - at the end of some illustrious career - they are almost certainly on their way to becoming out of date and out of touch, barely able to concentrate on present politics let alone the politics of the future.

We all like the thought of approaching some oracle that will make up our minds for us, painlessly, tell us what to do without our having to think. Well, that is an illusion.

But so is ploughing on regardless, head down, oblivious to what is ahead.

So let the next ten years of constitutional debate begin. In public. Let it begin among the citizens and in the Parliament, in the think-tanks and advisory bodies, in universities and in newspaper columns. Let us all put on our wise caps and wise bonnets and address the issue of what should be the 'final status' of the Europe to which we aspire.

How big should this Europe be? How democratic? How integrated? How much are we prepared to pay for it? And on what should that money be spent? What role should Europe play in the world? Only when we have an idea of our destination can we properly decide the best route to get there.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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