Politicians from the European centre-left opposed changing the EU treaty, advocated by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Brussels yesterday (29 November).
Two foreign ministers from the “Future of Europe Group”, Westerwelle and his Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders, argued at a public forum in favour of an overhaul of the European Union, while several speakers from the centre-left advocated the need to act rapidly within the existing treaties.
The meeting was aimed at discussing the Final Report of the Future of Europe Group in a wider circle, which included EU affairs pundits, MEPs and civil society representatives. Only one member of a national parliament attended, Belgian Senator Rik Daems.
The self-appointed Future of Europe Group consists of the foreign ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain). [more] The discussion was organised by the Belgian Foreign Ministry, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the King Baudouin Foundation.
Westerwelle said the group’s nine-page paper was “well received” in many capitals, its main idea being to convince the rest of the world that the EU had a long-term vision.
Reynders, who acted as a host, was straightforward in saying that after next year’s German national elections that a convention should be called to start preparatory work for a new treaty. He said consultations had been held with the Commission, the European Parliament, national Parliaments, and that a proposal was on the table and its authors were ready to listen.
The leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda, was the first to pour cold water on the promoters of treaty change.
‘Try to sell treat change to the unemployed’
“Let’s be honest. If we go to an unemployed citizen and we say to him: Look, we don’t have a job for you, but we have an idea to change the treaty, you can imagine what his reaction will be,” he said.
He argued that long-term thinking should go in parallel with measures to foster growth, as contained in the initial Commission proposal for the 2014-2020 EU budget. If not, he said that people disappointed by the European Union would hardly vote for pro-European parties at the European Parliament elections in 2014.
Massimo D’Alema, former Italian prime minister and ex-national secretary of the Democratic Party of the Left, was even more dubious. “My question is: do we have a long term?”
D’Alema insisted that EU leaders needed to act “courageously and rapidly” to avoid the “risk of break-up” between citizens and institutions.
“I believe that now we don’t need an abstract discussion on institutional issues,” he said.
Need for ‘more polarised’ EU elections?
D’Alema also argued in favour of “accelerated polarisation” of the European elections. He said Barack Obama won his re-election by asking Americans a very simple question: if they wanted more social spending and higher taxes for the rich.
He added that politics at the European level was “hidden under a veil of technocracy” and that in the absence of a clear distinction between conservatives and progressives, the camp of anti-Europeans was likely to benefit.
Jean Asselborn, the Socialist deputy prime minister of Luxembourg, said there would be terrible credibility problem if European citizens are told that the Lisbon Treaty, which was promoted as the answer to all the needs of Europe in terms of visibility and greater clout at the global stage, would be put in question. He insisted that there was enough room for manoeuvre in the Lisbon Treaty, provided that there was political will.
Westerwelle said that in his experience, the long-term answers to the eurozone crisis had been “the best confidence-building measure” to convince the rest of the world that they should continue to trust the European Union.
“The question is: what kind of leadership do we want, leadership by goals, or leadership by polls?”
Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst in the European Policy Centre, said that as the market pressure on the eurozone had decreased, there was a “danger to fall in the trap of complacency” and to a adopt a dangerous “wait-and-see” attitude. “We need a Convention-type exercise after the European elections,” he pleaded.
In term of priorities, Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think-tank, advocated for “less ambition” on economic governance and “more ambition to integrate our banks”.
Diogo Pinto, secretary-general of European Movement International, argued in favour of changing the EU treaties. “The crisis has shown that the institutions didn’t work well,” he said, also pleading for “European debates” to be held in preparation of the treaty changes.
Bernadette Ségol, secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation, expressed her dismay at the “phenomenal discrepancy” between the debate held at the session and the real needs of the citizens.
The European Council of 14 December 2007 decided to establish a 'Future of Europe reflection group' of no more than nine people to identify the key issues which the European Union is likely to face in the future and how these might be addressed.
Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González was named chair of the group. The group produced its report in May 2010. However, it appeared that EU leaders had put constraints on the work, such as asking it not to discuss enlargement, in order to avoid a debate on Turkey.
As a consequence, the report got little attention and was basically forgotten by the Union’s decision-makers.