Luck of the Irish

An upcoming referendum in Ireland could derail the Lisbon Treaty. But even if it passes, the EU is still split on the issue of political integration.

Ireland is holding a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on October 2. Although there are no guarantees in politics, the betting is that the Irish will succumb to a mixture of pressure and blandishments and say yes. If so, the European Union will be stronger, but will anyone notice?

The EU is two organizations. The first is a common market, the term by which the organization once was known. The EU creates a continental market, knocks down national barriers, allows free capital and labor mobility and standardizes economic rules. Despite today's tendency towards micromanagement from Brussels-controlling the size of vegetables sold and salt content of bread consumed-the result has been to promote economic liberty and development.

Although the EU's role as a single market is no longer controversial, challenges remain. Existing members have grown wary of accepting workers from more populous, less prosperous states. Some more-developed European states have had "buyer's remorse" when it comes to Bulgaria and Romania, which have yet to conquer the problems of transitional economies, including entrenched corruption. The prospect of Turkish membership has raised even greater resistance.

The EU's second role is to act as a continental political unit. This objective remains less complete and more controversial.

As the European Coal and Steel Community turned into the European Economic Community (or "Common Market") and then into the European Union, the organization has taken on greater attributes of sovereignty. The European Commission and European Parliament have steadily gained additional "competencies," or areas of authority.

Although the EU still lacks the status of a national government, such as the United States, the European balance has shifted significantly in recent years. British Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Nirj Deva contends that the EU already possesses more power vis-à-vis member governments than Washington does compared to the fifty states.

Nevertheless, the EU's president serves only six months. The most important powers remain with national parliaments. The EU possesses the least authority in the area of foreign policy.

Which has led to the fight over the Lisbon Treaty. Five years ago the European leadership drafted a continental constitution. Even few policy makers knew all the details buried in the complex and prolix document. The objective was to turn the EU into something much closer to a nation, with a consolidated government with increased continental functions. The proposed constitution extended control by Brussels over more issue areas and reduced national vetoes over EU decisions.

Constitutional revisions typically require referendums, and Dutch and French voters quickly rejected the new scheme. The Eurocratic elite briefly retreated in shock, before making a few minor changes and reissuing the constitution as the Lisbon Treaty. The main difference is that treaties are normally ratified by parliaments, not populations.

Why the Treaty? Hans-Gert Poettering, the outgoing European Parliament (EP) president, contended: "We do not want a European superstate-we want a European Union that is strong because no country alone can defend its interests." Whatever advocates call the resulting structure, the existing regime would become much more of a federal structure, with Brussels gaining significant authority at the expense of the organization's individual twenty-seven members.

Indeed, the German Constitutional Court recently voted to uphold the Lisbon Treaty only if the German parliament approved legislation ensuring the latter's continuing role in making decisions on core national issues. The Lisbon Treaty may set the outer reach of power transfers by Germany, at least, to Brussels. Wrote Wolfgang Muenchau of the Financial Times: "European integration ends with the Lisbon Treaty. It is difficult to conceive of another European treaty in the future that could be both material and in line with this ruling."

Treaty advocates fear that pressure will grow in other nations to legislate similar caveats. London's Open Europe think tank forthrightly declares: "British MPs need to wake up-and demand the same powers." Similar rumblings have been heard in France and the Netherlands.

Judging the merits a stronger continental government obviously is a task for the Europeans. French President Nicolas Sarkozy argued simply: "Europe cannot be a dwarf in terms of defense and a giant in economic matters."

It is a nice rhetorical line, but the continent faces few obvious security threats. Whatever Russia's relationship with Georgia and Ukraine, the likelihood of Moscow committing aggression against existing EU members is somewhere between nil and zero.

China is most likely to be the next great power and perhaps superpower. However, it is hard to imagine even a hostile Beijing threatening Europe in any way. Who else might pose a danger? Maybe a well-armed Iran would eventually endanger the Continent, but much must happen before that is true. There's more, however. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner claimed: "We must bear in mind, the necessity of supporting our diplomatic efforts with a common defense, a European defense. . . .Without this European defense our diplomacy lacks strength." Whether true or not, there isn't the slightest evidence that European peoples and governments are willing to devote significantly more resources to the military. At the April Strasbourg NATO summit European leaders promised an additional five thousand soldiers for Afghanistan; so far only seventeen hundred have been forthcoming. Passage of the Lisbon Treaty will not create a continental political will where none presently exists.

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