From Hubris to Nemesis

The European Union's Lisbon treaty was initially greeted with enthusiasm, pride and even hubris. It promised a more realistic and reasonable way forward than the ill-fated constitutional treaty that it replaced, and many of its supporters also hoped that a central feature of its predecessor — the notion of "constitutional patriotism" — was still alive. But the Lisbon treaty has instead brought chaos to the union. What went wrong?

Constitutional patriotism, a concept developed by two German philosophers, Dolf Sternberger and Karl Jaspers, was intended to replace the nationalism that had been discredited in Germany by the country's Nazi past. Similarly, as the EU evolved into a federal state, its loyal citizens would reject nationalism based on ethnic affinities and instead identify with the democratic principles of the federation's constitution.

This fantasy was unambiguously rejected by Irish voters, so it seems fitting to remind ourselves that the ancient Greeks, who gave the word "hubris" to the Western world, saw it as a portent of tragedy leading to downfall, or "nemesis."

Did the ambitions of the Lisbon treaty's designers condemn it to failure? And, indeed, has it really failed? After all, European integration may meet obstacles, but it is still moving forward. As France's Robert Schuman, one of the EU's founding fathers, said in 1950, "Europe will neither happen in one go, nor as a whole construct. It will happen through concrete achievements, first by creating a de facto solidarity."

Many thought that this solidarity had been achieved in October 2004, with the signing of the Nice treaty, which outlined an EU Constitution. But only 18 member states then approved it, before France and the Netherlands rejected it in referenda and the seven other member states then halted the ratification process.

Faced with this situation, the European Council had only two choices. First, it could stick with the Nice treaty as the basis of the union's operation. But that admission of failure would have weakened the political dynamic of the European project and severely constrained its scope for the future. The second option was to search for a compromise —the Lisbon treaty.

It bears repeating that the Lisbon treaty constitutes real, if modest, progress for the European project. Under its terms, the European Council's presidency would have far greater stability. In place of the current six-month rotating presidency, a European political leader who could command the necessary support would be elected to serve as president for 2 1/2 years. Council decisions that now require unanimity would be taken by majority vote. The EU's "high representative" would straddle the European Commission and the European Council to look after foreign affairs and security, and the European Parliament would have more power.

Over and above these considerable advances, the treaty aims to make the EU more democratic. A group of citizens would be able to "invite" the European Commission to propose new legislation. National parliaments would be given a say in EU lawmaking, as the treaty recognizes the roles of parliaments in the "adequate workings of the union."

Yet despite its undeniable importance and its contribution to the EU's development, the Lisbon treaty is far from being the key to everything. Instead, it is a simplified treaty replete with protocols, dispensations and opt-out causes. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was right when he spoke of the treaty as a set of "footnotes."

Meanwhile, with the Lisbon treaty blocked and no institutional step forward in sight, the underlying question remains: What type of Europe do we want? The Lisbon treaty is content with clearing pathways rather than creating new horizons. It mainly gives member states' leaders the responsibility of implementing various EU advances and sketches only tantalizing glimpses of Europe's full potential. It doesn't condemn the EU, but as French President Nicolas Sarkozy likes to say, it doesn't save it, either. The member states' political authority remains the motor of European policymaking, with all that this implies in terms of coordination, compromise and negotiation.

It is now up to the EU's political leadership to move quickly and take firm grasp of the achievements that initially gave birth to the Lisbon treaty. A charter of fundamental rights has, for example, been integrated into the treaty, but unless the member states bring it to life it will certainly fail to yield concrete results. Fair rather than free competition in trade is proposed, but what does this mean if member states are not able to reach consensus on how to make it happen?

A final point worth emphasizing is that the Lisbon treaty moves away from many of the ideas that could serve as the foundations of a European federal superstate. The disappearance from the treaty of such terms as "constitution" and "minister of foreign affairs" clearly show that the constitutional treaty's ambitions have been scaled back.

To move forward without Ireland by establishing a new union with only 26 countries is legally impossible. But starting a new cycle of institutional negotiations also seems improbable. Europe's citizens are tired of these recurrent discussions. Since 1995, there have been treaties of Amsterdam, Nice, Rome and Lisbon, and none of them has entirely succeeded.

Some believe that we will ultimately find a compromise — some ruse to make the Irish succumb and to give the EU a treaty. But it will take time. If the new arrangement lacks a qualified majority vote, fails to reform the commission and includes an opt-out on the charter of fundamental rights, it will not resolve the EU's essential problems or its estrangement from European public opinion.

Perhaps hubris has finally delivered nemesis in the form of a union without people, where treaties have replaced the spirit of Europe.

Pierre Moscovici, the French minister for European Affairs from 1997 to 2002, is vice president of the European Affairs Committee of France's National Assembly. © Project Syndicate

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