In 25 March 2007, EU Leaders signed the Berlin Declaration. First and foremost, this document was intended as a celebration of the EU’s achievements to mark its fiftieth anniversary. Such a celebration is justified. The EU has been tremendously successful in many ways: cementing reconciliation between France and Germany and rendering war in Europe unthinkable; entrenching democracy in former dictatorships from Spain and Portugal to the former Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe; and establishing a common market stretching across 27 countries and encompassing 480 million people.
Yet while the value of these successes is unquestioned, there is equally no doubt that the EU is currently bogged down in what one newspaper has described as a ‘mid-life crisis’. For all the fanfare that accompanied the signing of the Berlin Declaration, some European leaders do at least seem to realise that the EU cannot rest on its ‘former glories’. It must change and reform if it is to achieve success on anything like a similar scale over the next fifty years.
Ironically, some of the policies that were the greatest successes of the early years of the European Communities now symbolise its worst shortcomings. The Common Agricultural Policy, the so- called ‘European Social Model’ and commitment to ‘ever closer union’ may have been appropriate responses to the challenges Europe faced fifty years ago. But faced with the pressing challenges of today – climate change, global poverty, declining international competitiveness and international crime and terrorism – the reluctance of too many EU leaders to move away from the “locked in” policies and methods of the past serves only to emphasise how badly reform is needed.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the debate over the revived EU Constitution. It is fundamentally wrong-headed to insist that the proposed new ‘Reform Treaty’ (which amounts to a revival of the Constitution in all but name) is the only way forward for the European Union. It is perfectly clear to any observer that there has never been any enthusiasm for an EU Constitution amongst ordinary Europeans. The fact that the peoples of two founding Member States decisively rejected the text two years ago leaves no doubt. It also cannot now seriously be contended that the ‘period of reflection’ that followed those referenda has changed this one iota. Indeed, even the Constitution’s most ardent supporters have not tried to make this case. And the EU is certainly far from grinding to a halt without the Constitution. Major decisions have been, and are still being, taken. Legislation has continued to be passed in recent years and would be in future years too without any institutional reform. Indeed, if some decisions do take a little longer to reach, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. And it has certainly never been true to argue, as some have, that there can be no further enlargement of the EU without a Constitution. Any institutional adjustments necessary for, say, Croatia to join, could be made in that country’s own Accession Treaty, while any further enlargements, even in a most optimistic scenario, will probably not occur in the immediately foreseeable future anyway.
All this does not mean that the EU’s institutions do not need some reform at some point. It would be hard to argue that the Treaty of Nice, the basis on which the EU currently operates, represents an ideal institutional settlement. No-one, perhaps not even Jacques Chirac who chaired the marathon negotiations at which it was agreed, would seriously contend that this is the case. But it is vital that institutional reform of the EU is placed in its proper context and perspective: it should be a consequence of the EU’s response to the challenges that face it, not the actual response itself.
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