New year, new approach?

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel will today launch his country’s EU presidency which, after Blair’s pisspoor efforts over the last six months, can only be a relief to all concerned – even though Austria is the only member state to be more EU-sceptic than Britain.

And so as the Austrian presidency opens, we’re back to square one, with new EU President Schuessel announcing his intention – just as did our own dear Tony Blair six months ago – to “restart the negotiations on the constitution.

The Austrians, however, are trying not to kid themselves. After Blair’s wild boasts about all he was going to achieve as nominal head of the continent – practically none of which he even made any progress on – it looks like Schuessel has decided to play down his chances of achieving much – “We will not be able to resolve the matter entirely, that is clear.” This way, of course, any progress at all will make him look infinitely better than our Tony.

Other than that, a lot of the language is almost identical to Blair’s six months ago. There needs to be a “dialogue with the people, in the public domain, about the border of Europe, about the institutions, about where we are going and not just about where we are coming from”. All true, and all been said before. It has never yet been achieved, but that’s largely been thanks to the petty squabbling amongst the political elites having prevented the debate ever really getting off the ground.

The one major shift in emphasis from Blair’s approach – interesting, important, and something our Tony never had the balls to consider suggesting – is this apparent desire to focus strongly on the fallout of the constitution’s rejection last year. Yes, there are a few other priorities as well – a European energy policy, a “globalisation adjustment fund”, yet more talk of this so-called “European social model”, as well as reform of the EU’s service sector – but without fundamental reform at the heart of the EU, all of this is mere window-dressing on a slowly rotting framework.

You cannot, after all, run a club of 25 with the same rules and budgetary procedures as a club for 15. They should have sorted this out before the new member states joined; they didn’t.

We’ve all been saying this for ages, but if they don’t sort it out soon, there will be a major crisis – and far, far worse than the silly squabbles over the relative contributions of France and Britain which dominated Blair’s presidency. The only way to find the best way to proceed is through as wide a consultation and debate with the people of Europe as possible.

And herein lies the problem. The only time the EU has seen a real public debate over its future was in France in the run up to the constitutional referendum last year. People simply aren’t interested in talking about the EU until they see it as potentially having a direct impact upon them. They find it dull, and you can hardly blame them.

This is why most people in the UK are faintly anti-EU – because they only ever hear of the dodgy directives causing problems, and they’re good to moan about in the pub. But the vast majority of the population doesn’t actually know anything about the EU, how it works or what it does. Nor do they care that they don’t know.

The same is largely true across the rest of Europe (although on the mainland people are generally more in favour) – ignorance is bliss, after all. The majority of the citizens of EU member states are neither pro- nor anti-EU; they are neither Europhiles nor Eurosceptics – merely Euroapathetic.

How do you engage disinterested, apathetic people in a debate in which they have no interest? The only thing that has ever worked for the EU was the constitution. Perceived as either a threat, an opportunity or a major mistake, people saw that it had the potential to affect them, so debate for once kicked off. The public discussion of the constitution seen in France before their referendum last year was pretty much the only time the public has ever got so involved in an EU-related issue. The problem now is how to revive and spread that debate.

The only thing that needs to be accepted – by all sides – is that the particular constitution that was rejected by the French and Dutch is now dead. What is sorely needed – and what the Blair EU presidency singularly failed to even attempt – is an autopsy. This seems to be Austria’s intent for the next six months.

Aspects of the constitution would be welcome to all but the most rabidly anti-EU factions; other parts were pretty awful even for the most enthusiastic Europhile. Schuessel’s apparent desire to use his EU presidency to dissect the thing, pulling out the most promising and important parts of the rambling and tedious breeze block of text, can likewise only be a welcome one for all sides.

An extended debate (which should have been a priority of the British presidency, were it not for Blair’s terror of raising the divisive spectre of the EU in British domestic political discourse) will allow the full range of opinions to be heard again after six months in which all other views were largely drowned out by the high-profile spat between Blair and Chirac and everyone got thoroughly bored by the whole affair.

Austrian Vice-Chancellor Hubert Gorbach said yesterday that “We need to go back to the start, we need to newly regulate the powers… We need less regulation from Brussels and more powers to the Europe of the regions.” Many Eurosceptics would agree with him. Yet at the same time, Austria’s proposal to “cherry-pick” those aspects of the constitution which should be revived and build confidence in the idea of EU reform once more should also only be welcomed by anyone who is more pro-EU.

And so now we might see a proper, EU-wide debate on some of the fundamentals – voting reform, transparency, a permanent presidency and EU foreign secretary – while being able to drop most of the bumf and guff that cluttered up the old constitutional document.

With the EU presidency shifting to the (slightly) EU-sceptic Angela Merkel of Germany in the second half of the year, the debate is likely for pretty much the first time to be dominated by voices who are aware of the concerns of the average citizen rather than – as with rabid Europhile Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s overseeing of the Convention which produced the constitution – that unrepresentative minority of pro-Europeans who genuinely would like to see a federal superstate.

To misquote De Gaulle, the future of Europe is too serious a business to be left to Europhiles. The EU is a project based on idealism. Idealism, sadly, does not often beget a workable system of transnational cooperation.

This is the mistake that has always been made in the past. The future of the EU should not be plotted out by its most enthusiastic supporters, but by the more reluctant ones. That’s the only way we’re ever going to end up with something realistic on which a majority can agree. The next year could, if we’re lucky, point the EU’s much-needed reforms in the right direction – but only if the loudmouth likes of the British and French governments can be made, for once, to shut the hell up and allow the smaller nations and – most importantly – the people of Europe to finally have their say.

  1. Well said. That the EU would be in a much healthier state if it listened to the concerns of its people is a truth so obvious that the only place it goes unrecognised is in Brussels itself.

    However, if you really think (even given the sceptical leanings of the Austrian people or Frau Merkel) that this year is going to see any real change in the knee-jerk, forward-at-all-costs mentality that monopolises the EU’s agenda, then I fear you may be disappointed…

  2. Hmmm… Just noticed – I implied it’s Germany in the latter half of the year – actually it’s Finland, with Germany taking over at the start of 2007. Austria, however, has explicitly stated that there should be no expectation of a resolution to the hoped-for debate until the German presidency, and it looks like Finland is OK with this.

  3. Ken said:

    “We need less regulation from Brussels and more powers to the Europe of the regions.” Many Eurosceptics would agree with him.”

    Europe of the regions, I think is not something a Eusceptic would agree with, what seems to be missing is a Europe of Sovereign Nation states, that of course in not on the agenda.

  4. Well said. The problem seems to be, though, that it’s very difficult for there to be a public debate on an issue because there is no European public sphere to speak of. With very few exceptions, such as the FT, most of the media is regional – the only conversation actually happening about the future of the EU at Europe-wide level is within the EU itself. And it was European governments talking amongst themselves and then blaming their allies and rivals for anything about which the public disapproved that got us into this mess in the first place.

    I really can’t see how that can be changed without the development of a Europe-wide media, though I’d love to be convinced.

    That said, there was a moment last summer when it looked like the division between economic liberals and supporters of the European social model was about to turn into the first European public debate. It’s the closest we’ve come.