Friends and foes of EU treaty change clash in first duel

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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.

MEP Alojs Peterle (EPP, Slovenia), a former foreign minister and member of the Convention on the Future of Europe (2002-2003), reminded that putting in place the Lisbon Treaty took eight years. Instead of attempting a new treaty change, he advocated the use of the community method. According to him, the recent adoption of the economic 'six-pack' was a good example that this method was delivering.

MEP Roberto Gualtieri (S&D, Italy), said Europe needed a treaty change, but also a legitimacy of the process, or else the treaty change would be rejected in referenda as was the defunct European Constitution. He said he did not agree with Germany who claims that a treaty change is need to put in place Eurobonds. "We can have Eurobonds with this treaty," he insisted.

Joachim Bitterlich, Executive Vice President for International Affairs of Veolia, said that a new treaty change was a "dangerous" exercise. He added that if politicians were serious about passing trough important decisions, political will was more important than treaty change. He blamed EU leaders for focusing on reactions in their home country, instead of thinking about the common interest.

Some EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have argued that a treaty change could help enforce fiscal rules to avoid another debt crises plaguing euro zone countries, including Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which have all required costly bailouts.

The Treaty on the European Union, signed in Maastricht in 1992, came into force in 1993; making changes to the Treaty since then has proven cumbersome and complicated.

The most recent example was the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, which was eventually ratified by all 27 member states after heated debate in some countries, especially those which were required to hold a referendum. One major stumbling block was the rejection of the treaty in a 2008 Irish referendum, which was reversed the following year in a second vote.

  • 23 Oct.: EU Council meeting and eurozone summit held in parallel in Brussels.

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