IRELAND has voted in favour of the Lisbon treaty. The majority was certainly larger than expected. But if other member states do not rescind their decisions, the Irish vote may be the vital piece of a political jigsaw that has taken years to complete.
From a UK perspective there is much that is wrong with the European Union. Brussels feels very distant. It seems to waste vast quantities of money. It does not talk about democracy in a way we recognise. Thus the notion of reform sits easily within British EU vocabulary.
In its early stages, the Lisbon treaty was sometimes called the “Reform Treaty” — drafted because earlier agreements were deemed no longer fit for purpose in the enlarged Union. Although its actual contents have been lost in the mists of political obfuscation, the Lisbon treaty gives attention to the workings of the Council and the Parliament, and the place of the EU in the world — to make them more effective.
The present concern about the creation of a president of the Council, and the possibility that we might soon be governed by President Blair, ignores the fact that the post already exists. It is currently held for six months at a time by the political heads of member states, each taking a turn to chair the regular meetings of the representatives of the member governments.
Very democratic, but also a recipe for inconsistency and drift. It worked well when Sarkozy was President during the Georgian crisis and the credit crunch; but what would have happened if someone with less political weight had been at the helm at that moment?
To speed up the business of the Council, qualified majority voting (QMV) has been extended to the fields of agriculture, fisheries, and justice and home affairs. Another nail in the coffin of British sovereignty? Yet this stops the smallest of countries’ blocking key developments supported by a clear majority. A limitation on the ability to veto forces every member state actively to negotiate; QMV is rarely used — and the UK is recognised to be a very good negotiator.
THE EU is criticised for punching below its weight in the world. The authors of the treaty recognised that a union of 450 million people needed to have a more effective voice on the global stage. The creation of a permanent “High Representative” for foreign affairs has the potential to make a real difference in a world where, for example, the British Foreign Secretary is a bit-player alongside his US, Chinese, and Russian counterparts.
The extension of the co-decision process between the Council and the Parliament — to include the budget, immigration, justice, and international agreements — means that more decisions need the approval of MEPs, as well as that of the representatives of the national governments in the Council. What needs to happen now is that the legitimacy of the only directly elected multi-national Parliament is strengthened by increased participation in European elections.
MANY CHRISTIANS remember the debate about the inclusion of “God” in the preamble. The Lisbon treaty may not mention “God”, but it certainly includes the Church. Article 17 commits the institutions of the EU to “regular, transparent and open dialogue with the Churches, Religions and Communities of Conviction”.
This formalises much that already takes place in Brussels. My experience as the Church of England Representative is that doors open. Officials, MEPs, the UK Permanent Representation, and the offices of the UK regions tend to be engaged, interested, and open to hearing other views. Church of England submissions on climate change and budget reform have been well-received by the Commission; while MEPs have helped with Church of England conferences and events.
Although the treaty acknowledges the Churches, it gives the same access to other religions and “Communities of Conviction”. Working with representatives of the religions is normally very positive — because of their desire to make common cause. The inclusion of the Communities of Conviction is another matter. This is a diverse range of Masonic, humanist, and secularist groupings. Some genuinely want to enter into dialogue, others want only to undermine the participation of the Churches and other faiths.
So far the Commission has kept its dialogue with the Churches separate from talks with the Communities of Conviction. The inclusion of both in the same treaty article will strengthen the argument that all should engage in dialogue.
THE CHURCHES are already active in the public space that the Lisbon treaty has recognised. In May this year, at a high-level dialogue meeting, the Bishop of Hulme impressed on the Presidents of the Commission and the Parliament the need to develop more robust structures for conversation.
This autumn, the Churches, including the Church of England, have been working on proposals for the way forward — so that once the treaty comes into effect, “regular, transparent, and open dialogue” between the Churches and the institutions can flourish.
The Churches are working for a clear pattern of dialogue at all levels, to be preceded by careful preparations, and followed up by real action and feedback. The Churches are not just in Brussels to talk. They want to make a difference, too.
The Revd Dr Gary Wilton is Church of England Representative to the EU, and a Canon of Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral, Brussels.