Ahead of a crucial EU summit on the debt crisis, supporters and opponents of amending the bloc's Treaty to strengthen the euro zone locked horns yesterday (13 October) in Brussels, amid growing calls by Germany to reopen the institutional debate.
Friends and foes of treaty change aligned behind their national, party or institutional lines at a conference, organised by Friends of Europe (FoE), a Brussels-based think tank.
Commission Vice President Joaquín Almunia, responsible for competition, broke ranks with his boss, Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who said the EU executive was open to a possible new EU treaty change. In his speech, Barroso repeated the ideas he had expressed to MEPs the previous day.
Germany in particular has been arguing that treaty change could help enforce fiscal rules to avoid a repeat of the debt crises plaguing members of the euro zone (see background).
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reportedly said that Berlin wanted to amend the bloc's founding treaties at a new 27-nation convention that would take place in 2012.
Commissioner breaks ranks
Almunia, a social democrat, who said he was "speaking as a politician", implying that he broke ranks with the Commission's official line, showed no mercy on heads of state or governments, sitting at the EU council meetings.
"The main problem, from the political point of view [is] at the Council level. The member states, the most relevant member states, before the crisis, and during a good deal since the crisis has started, were not politically aware of what was at stake," he argued.
"They tried to find solutions, on the one hand, on a one-to-one basis, so each country [tried to find] its own solution, […] and they tried to find solutions by a piecemeal strategy," Almunia carried on, blasting leaders for their "lack of political will".
"This lack of political awareness and political will has been corrected right now [by embarking] on a treaty change. This is a very risky operation. I don't recommend it. We are not mature for this," Almunia said.
Alexander Alvaro, MEP from the liberal ALDE group and member of the German Free Democratic party, broke ranks with his own leader, Guido Westerwelle, taking position against a new treaty change and arguing that there "was no political will in the 27 capitals" to go in this direction.
Etienne Davignon, President of FoE, in his host capacity, said that if last year at the same annual meeting anyone would have mentioned treaty change, he would have been considered "a total fool".
"Why has it changed? he questioned. "It changed because a number of governments have found out, much to their disappointment, that playing a dual game of defending their national interests and making some sort of European noises in Brussels, in one moment, becomes totally inconsistent," Davignon carried on.
He argued that the most important discovery for leaders between now and before was that they were "stuck together", and that the vote on Tuesday in Slovakia against the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) was a good example of the downfall of this togetherness. (Later that day (13 October) the Slovak parliament passed the ratification).
Distraction or destruction?
Mario Monti, former EU Commissioner and President of the University Bocconi, said that a new treaty change was "risky business". He said he agreed with Almunia, and that putting treaty change on Europe's political agenda would be "a distraction, even maybe destruction".
At the end of the discussion, Monti said that the debate just held "reflected the state of mind" at the table of the EU Council, due to meet next week.