Treaty will make the EU more accountable

by
07 October 2009

Gary Wilton approves the changes proposed for the European Union, after the positive vote in Ireland last week

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.

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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.

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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.

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