15 December 2017

Europe is still living with the consequences of the Lisbon Treaty

By James Holland

The EU doesn’t usually shy away from landmark celebrations. But one notable date passed almost unnoticed in Brussels this week as the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the Lisbon Treaty came and went.

No official ceremony was held. No pro-EU gushing from the most reliable of EU federalists. Not even any faint murmurs of nostalgia for what was probably the most radical of the EU treaties to date.

A sense of embarrassment appears to have built up around this Treaty, and the decade since it was signed has been a tumultuous one. From the failings of the euro to the EU’s external borders that failed to provide adequate support for refugees while managing migratory flows, the EU has had to contend with some very serious crises over the course of the last ten years, and it hasn’t come out of them unscathed.

Some EU economies have barely grown since 2007 and unemployment remains staggeringly high among the young in Southern European economies.

Anti-immigration parties have risen in prominence across the continent, topping polls in countries like Sweden, Austria and Poland, and preforming very well in other core countries such as Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

Almost every country neighbouring the EU suffers from greater instability today than they did a decade ago, namely Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Ukraine.

The embarrassment is understandable then. Confidence in the European project is low. But this loss of trust is not just thanks to problems with the euro or the migration crisis.

The EU also went through a serious constitutional and democratic crisis of its own making when the failed EU Constitutional Treaty was remoulded into the Lisbon Treaty and then forced through the ratification process. Without adequate democratic support, this has come back to haunt the EU, and nowhere has this proved more obvious than in Britain, where a majority voted to leave the EU.

Former senior civil servant Ivan Rogers summarised the connection between Lisbon and Brexit acutely in a fascinating article:

Had there been a referendum in the UK on the Lisbon Treaty, which emerged, misbegotten, from the tortuous process begun in early century to draft a new Constitutional Treaty, who seriously doubts that the UK public would have voted “no,” and thereby killed it, and probably forced, much earlier and in different circumstances, the existential debate over British membership?

This passage struck a cord with me. It was as the Lisbon Treaty was being ratified across the European continent in 2008 that I completed my Master’s thesis and took up my first serious job, in the European Parliament.

I remember the whole episode vividly. In the alcohol infused corridors of EU political power, conversation and debate flowed freely with colleagues, allies and adversaries from across the European political spectrum. It was a fascinatingly immersive experience, but there was one serious problem: I wasn’t really fitting in.

I had little trouble agreeing with people about the benefits of EU membership. But there was less common ground when I would highlight some of the EU’s faults and inadequacies. Young, idealistic men and women starting out in their careers didn’t appear particularly attached to principles of democracy, accountability or transparency. It seemed they had found a higher calling, and one that would ultimately serve their ambitions well in Brussels: an implacable belief in the European project.

My divergence from the EU bubble’s predominant faith in the EU project may have solidified with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty, but it started with the rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty by France and the Netherlands in 2005.

Those referendum results threw the EU into an existential crisis that would ultimately lead it down a path that would do irreparable harm to its reputation in the eyes of many Europeans — but especially the stubborn Brits.

When two founding members reject an EU Treaty, one would have hoped that time would be taken to pause and reflect. Time to reconsider priorities. Time to take a step back and try to understand why voters hadn’t been as enthusiastic as hoped for.

The Constitutional project had been highly ambitious. The treaty sought to expand the EU’s powers — as Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice had already done in 1993, 1999 and 2003 respectively — but most controversially, it sought to create a veritable United States of Europe with all the fittings of a modern state: a president, a foreign minister, an army, an anthem.

It was always going to be a hard sell to largely patriotic populations who may have admired what the EU had done for them so far, but who still viewed its institutions and politicians as distant entities who had not earned legitimate authority over them. It was this ambiguity about the role and power of the EU — an ambiguity that had always suited those in charge — that had allowed the EU, largely unobstructed, to continue to expand its influence.

The Constitutional Treaty was different though. This was a daring, full-frontal appeal to the peoples of Europe to sign up to the idea of a United States of Europe. To place their EU allegiance on a par with, or even above, their national loyalty.

Whether one agreed with the proposals in the treaty or not, there was agreement among its advocates and opponents that such a fundamental constitutional shift would require referendums to give the exercise democratic legitimacy. Surprisingly though, of the 27 members states in the EU in 2005, only seven would allow their people a say on the matter.

Sadly for those that longed for a United States of Europe, and despite an early positive result in Spain, the treaty was dealt a near-fatal blow on the 29th May 2005, when 55 per cent of French voters rejected it.

With the Dutch all set to hold their referendum just three days after, the vote went ahead anyway. Knowing the project to be virtually dead following France’s rejection, Dutch Pro-EU campaigners were hoping that their country’s backing for the project would leave France holding all the blame for its failure.

The tactic backfired. A campaign criticised for its apocalyptic warnings of what would happen should the treaty be rejected (sound familiar?) saw an even larger 62 per cent share of Dutch voters reject the treaty. The referendums in Portugal, Ireland, the UK, Denmark and Poland were subsequently cancelled and the project appeared dead.

EU politicians and civil servants are often considered to hold an arrogance and disinterest in the opinions of voters — discounting the obvious furore that surrounds EU elections every five years — but the audacious and shameless way in which the EU reacted to this popular rejection took me by surprise and reinforced my Euroscepticism ,  a Euroscepticism that had just about survived six years of largely pro-EU studies in French and English universities.

Rather than return to the drawing board and reconsider what it was that the EU should be focussing on, the European Commission chose instead to simply disassemble the constitutional treaty, reintegrate all the amendments back into the two existing EU treaties, and simply seek national ratification of this new treaty without referendums. So complex were the new final texts that no readable version existed when the European Parliament approved it in February 2008. If MEPs hadn’t been able to read it, goodness knows what chance European voters had had.

It is hard to imagine such a proposal being presented to the governments, parliaments and peoples of Europe without it causing ridicule and consternation.

Extraordinarily though, the strategy succeeded. One after another, legislative chamber after legislative chamber ratified the new treaty — by then called the Lisbon Treaty.

In Britain, the treaty was guided through the ratification process by the Labour government. Having promised a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty, Labour reneged on that pledge, arguing that the Lisbon Treaty was a different text and that its passage therefore didn’t warrant a national plebiscite.

This contradicted what the man who actually drafted the Constitutional Treaty — former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing —had written in a piece for the Independent in 2007: “The difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content.”

Gordon Brown — the British Prime Minister at the time — seemingly wishing to distance himself from the whole process, chose not to attend the initial signing ceremony in Lisbon on 13th December 2007. He also chose not to attend the debate or vote in the House of commons the following year. He may have (correctly) ascertained that this treaty was destined to become a poisoned chalice.

Nevertheless, secured by a sizeable parliamentary majority, the Labour party forced through an early vote on ratifying the Treaty despite the grave concerns expressed on both sides of the house. (For those that like that kind of thing, the Hansard record of that day’s debate is a fascinating read.)

David Cameron also promised to hold a referendum as late as May 2009, saying at the time: “A progressive reform agenda demands that we redistribute power from the EU to Britain and from judges to the people. We will therefore hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.”

However, by November 2009, it was becoming clear that the Lisbon Treaty would become law before he could ever become Prime Minister, and so he backtracked on that earlier promise, stating: “We want to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but clearly it seems we are getting closer to the point where the treaty is not going to be a treaty but becomes part of European law,”

Only one referendum now stood in the way of the Lisbon Treaty being adopted across the EU.

The Irish government, like all their European partners, may have rather avoided the plebiscite, but constitutionally, it was obliged to hold a vote.

When the only country to be given a vote on the matter then voted down the Lisbon Treaty, the EU was in no mood to back down. Still smarting from the failed Constitutional Treaty, it took a bully’s tone with the Irish people, and, keen to push it through in any way it could, a set of Irish-specific protocols were added to the text. Ireland was then asked to vote again 15 months later and this time they voted “correctly”. The Lisbon Treaty entered into force in January 2009.

However, in their haste, having ridden roughshod over democracy and the principle that important shifts in sovereignty require the popular support of the people, the EU had sowed a seed of discontent that would embolden eurosceptic movements across the continent and ultimately play a significant role in Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

The negative ramifications of that treaty continue to be felt across the continent today. Participation in EU elections continues to fall. To much fanfare but little public enthusiasm, the Spitzenkandidaten procedure was launched for the 2014 EU elections in the hope of increasing voter turnout. This process granted EU political groupings the chance to have their chosen candidate become EU Commission President.

Ultimately, that also failed though when participation in the 2014 elections dropped lower still. Laughably, the EU got away with reporting the contrary for over two months after the vote. Having eagerly hailed the 2014 election for finally reversing a trend of declining voter engagement, they were embarrassingly forced to admit, weeks later, that turnout had in fact dropped to its lowest ever level since EU elections began in 1979.

Meanwhile, Euroscepticism is on the rise across Europe. The 2014 elections returned the largest number of eurosceptic MEPs and expectations for the 2019 elections are low. France’s anti-EU Front National party recently made it through to the second round of the french presidential elections and, like UKIP, won the 2014 EU elections.

In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats party is now topping polls, neck-and-neck with the ruling social democrats there. In the Netherlands the anti-immigrant PVV party came second in elections earlier this year and looks likely to improve on its 2014 EU election result. Meanwhile, in Italy, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement now tops polls there as it continues to flirt with euroscepticism in a country that has traditionally been very pro-EU.

Ten years on, it’s become clear that the Lisbon Treaty was probably a step too far, too soon. That’s hardly something to celebrate I suppose.

James Holland is a former adviser to Daniel Hannan MEP