Changes to the Lisbon treaty to allow for euro crisis bailouts are storing up political troubleby Manneken Pis / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Nothing horrifies governments more than the prospect of consulting voters on matters European. So it was little surprise to see them reaching for diminutives to describe the change to the Lisbon treaty which they agreed late in October. “Small, small, small” was one diplomat’s verdict of the revision which Berlin demanded as a price for agreeing a mechanism to deal with future eurozone debt crises.
Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European council, the body where EU governments meet, is very much of this view. Never an enthusiast for any form of treaty change, he managed to kick into touch a proposal from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to deprive spendthrift EU nations of their voting rights—a change that would have required a proper treaty rewrite. Van Rompuy has now been asked to achieve Merkel’s wider aims without triggering any dreaded referendums.
But will it work? Van Rompuy is likely to opt for a simplified treaty revision which can be decided by heads of government without the panoply of normal procedures. He is confident this can be done with so little fuss that the great European demos will barely notice. Not everyone is so sure. In Britain this will be presented as a technical change with no impact on nations outside the eurozone, though David Cameron will still have to steer a bill through the commons, officials say. In the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, the Eurosceptic president, will be tempted to do what he did when the Lisbon treaty was ratified and hold everything up. Denmark is likely to question whether a referendum is required and there may be constitutional complications in Ireland. But the Netherlands is causing officials most concern. Though the country does not have any provision for a legally binding referendum, that did not stop it holding one in 2005 on the ill-fated European constitution. The government could hardly ignore the resounding “no” vote.
Fast forward five years and the party of the maverick anti-Islam campaigner and Eurosceptic, Geert Wilders, has already suggested a referendum, as has the Dutch Socialist party. Alone the two parties do not have enough votes to push the idea through the Dutch parliament. But if a debate takes off, the bigger parties who backed the referendum in 2005—including the main opposition Labour party—could be put on the spot. The proposed new monetary fund for the eurozone would be a backstop mechanism to bail out nations on the brink of default. That means the Dutch playing their part in financing it, probably to the tune of up to €30bn. Since this money belongs to Dutch taxpayers it will be hard to argue that they should not have a say just because lawyers describe this amendment as technical and tiny. With this treaty change, size may matter.
THE RISE OF REDING
In the annals of the European commission there can have been few transitions as remarkable as that of Viviane Reding of Luxembourg. Now on her third term in Brussels, she has moved from obscurity to such notoriety that her future as a vice-president of the commission has been questioned. After criticising France’s treatment of the Roma—and making an unfortunate comparison with the second world war—Reding was the object of a counter-offensive from the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. A one-day summit in September was dominated by an attack on Reding. Though Sarko refrained from savaging her at the next meeting in October, he was not so restrained at a pre-summit gathering of centre-right parties where he again let rip. This time her offence was to complain about a Franco-German deal, struck in the seaside town of Deauville, which pre-empted leaders’ discussions on the euro.
This is a far cry from 1999 when Reding joined Romano Prodi’s team taking the culture and sport portfolio, a dossier where her powers must have seemed slight even to someone from Luxembourg. During her second term—under José Manuel Barroso—she was given the far-from-glamorous telecoms portfolio. But she outmanoeuvered Peter Mandelson to put a ceiling on roaming charges levied by mobile phone operators on EU users outside their home state. This proved one of the few real achievements in the last commission. Now she has emerged as one of the most prominent of the grey bunch that make up Barroso’s second commission. True, this has been at the cost of making enemies in Paris, and more such spats could make her position untenable. But, while he hates the heat from France, Barroso must back his commissioner or risk looking as if he is caving in to a big bully of a member state.
MY DEEPEST CONDOLENCES
So ubiquitous are the ponderous messages of condolence dispatched by Herman Van Rompuy after every disaster that a near-perfect spoof has been circulating in Brussels. The text, which originated on the blog Berlaymonster, reads: “I am saddened to learn of the tragic incident over the weekend in which a nearly entire portion of ‘frites’ were dropped on Place Jourdan, only minutes after being purchased. I wish to convey my condolences and a serving of sauce andalouse to the cack-handed drunken oaf for his loss. Our thoughts are with him in this difficult time.”