October 02, 2009

Remember this date. Someday historians will look back and identify this as the defining moment which marked the beginning of the end of the European Union.

The Treaty of Lisbon contains several provisions to make a larger European Union easier to govern. Key among these is that future changes to the EU constitution will no longer require unanimous agreement among all its members. A double majority will suffice.

As long as the European Union and its economic predecessors existed, it has always included several sharp divides. Traditionally the strongest rift lay between Germany's social values and those of France (and to a lesser extent Spain and Greece). Great Britain and Sweden cast a highlight on an additional divide over economic and monetary values. Yet the requirement for unanimity in the core issues always ensured that all these disaparate opinions would always have a voice, and a potent voice at that.

Compromise and a fundamental respect for national identity were thus entrenched in the original three-pillar structure of the European Union. The requirement for unanimous agreement meant that there was no getting around the concerns of any country. Separating economic matters from security/foreign matters and judicial matters allowed the necessary wiggle room to allow wide areas of agreement in spite of some very strong, continuing differences of opinion.

The Treaty of Lisbon will change all that.

The double-majority vote is not new in the European Union -- it has been sneaking in very quietly for quite some years now -- but it is new to constitutional matters. Among the early members who had learned (sometimes kicking and screaming) to somehow get along, it was still not such a big deal. Although France and Germany dominated, each partner was individually strong enough and had strong enough ties that none could be permanently blocked out. (Call it a new incarnation of the Treaty of Westphalia, a balance of power for the modern age.)

On May 2004, ten new countries joined the European Union, nearly doubling its previous size. Eight of these countries were formerly communist, seven of them under the Soviet bloc.

As part of the conditions for joining the European Union, restrictions were placed on the movement of labour from the formerly communist countries (the two islands were exempt): even though free movement of labour and other resources was one of the primary reasons the early European economic agreements were created in the first place. Similar restrictions were placed upon Bulgaria and Romania when they joined the European Union the following year. Each previous member was allowed to set its own restrictions, so long as they were lifted by 2011 at the very latest.

(The exact transitional period was two years if wanted, with the right to extend for another three years; and then to extend again for an additional two years if significant proof existed that labour from the new member states would be disruptive to the markets of the old member states.)

All previous member states chose to set restrictions on the free movement of labour within their corner of the European Union: thereby setting the precedent by splitting a uniting Europe into two separate tiers. Most members did allow those restrictions to lapse this year or earlier: ie. the baseline, with maybe a single extension. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein have extended restrictions to their maximum possible amount under EU law.

(Whether the restrictions set by these last four countries will in fact be lifted when the time comes will be one of the major tests for the European Union. No doubt it will be argued that times are exceptional: but it is only in exceptional times that the true strength of conviction is tested. Either it stands firm under duress, or it collapses.)

With the addition of the new countries, most of which did not fully share a societal value hierarchy with any of the previous EU members, unanimous agreement was quite a bit more difficult to reach.

Enter the Treaty of Lisbon.

Under this treaty, the three pillars become a single legal entity with strengthened powers. The position of the president will no longer rotate among member countries, but will be an elected term position. And future constitutional changes will no longer require unanimity among the members of the European Union.

Instead of working to overcome the deep rifts within Europe, the Treaty of Lisbon sanctions them in the name of convenience and ease of future legislative passage.

Ireland is not the last country to have ratified the Treaty of Lisbon. Even now, the Czech Republic's ratification has not yet been received in Rome: but that requires only government, not the direct voice of the people. Ireland is the only country in the European Union to require a referendum for EU treaties. Only in Ireland did the electorate have a direct opportunity, not only to see the far-reaching ramifications of the Lisbon Treaty for what they are, but to act on that seeing.

The referendum did fail the first time. In 2008, despite strong international pressure (denied by Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin), the Irish people turned it down. Accordingly, the Treaty went back to the drawing board and a few specific exclusions were negotiated for Ireland: yet the core substance of the treaty was never once touched.

Despite the continuing unhappiness with the Treaty of Lisbon shown in poll after poll, international pressure was building. A second referendum was a virtual certainty. No one quite knew what would happen if the treaty was turned down this time.

Then the economic crisis struck, and Ireland was among those hardest hit. We will never know the full backroom negotiations, but the final vote ended up breaking strongly along economic lines. With a skyrocketing unemployment rate even among the most highly educated of its citizens, Ireland bowed to international pressure and ratified the Treaty of Lisbon.

... which now includes a clause, for the first time ever, dealing with how a member country can leave the European Union.

Bookmark this date. This was the day that the people of Ireland held the future of Europe in their hands: and allowed a united Europe to slip away.

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