After treaty deal, what future for the EU?

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The Lisbon Treaty, signed by European Union heads of government or state flying into the Portuguese capital on December 13, is meant to end years of "navel-gazing".

28 December 2007

Brussels (dpa) - The Lisbon Treaty, signed by European Union heads of government or state flying into the Portuguese capital on December 13, is meant to end years of "navel-gazing".

Now that the protracted, inward-looking debate over the union's institutional shake-up has been successfully dealt with, so the argument goes, the 27-member bloc is free to focus on finding practical solutions to "real" problems.

Slow economic growth, the threats posed by globalisation, climate change, as well as potentially explosive developments in the western Balkans usually top the list of concerns.

But the way the EU chooses to tackle such complex issues, analysts note, relies heavily on the initiative of a handful of key players.

"To say that the EU's navel-gazing era is over is a rather bold statement to make," said Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think-tank.

"The Lisbon Treaty certainly allows the EU to take some steps forward, but there is no leapfrogging; it makes it easier to take decisions, but it is no revolution. Navel-gazing can only be overcome by political will," he added.

Those that can make a real difference in the direction that the EU will take in 2008 and in the years to come are: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The leaders of other large member states - such as Britain and Italy - might take offence at being excluded from this highly-selective "who's who" list of powerful EU figures.

But the reality is that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is bogged down by his increasingly euro-sceptic electorate, while his Italian counterpart, Romano Prodi, also has plenty of domestic trouble at the helm of a highly fragmented and fragile coalition government.

Of the "big three", Sarkozy is certainly seen as the most enterprising.

France's mercurial president has come up with a plethora of initiatives since being elected on May 6 - from ways to protect EU industries from cheap Chinese imports to the creation of a Mediterranean Union that would forge closer ties between the likes of Turkey, Syria, Libya and Israel.

In fact, Sarkozy's hyperactivity is overshadowing the previous undisputed Queen of Europe, Angela Merkel, whose "Grand Coalition" government appears to be running out of steam. And the irritation is only barely concealed in Berlin.

Moreover, Sarkozy and Merkel are likely to clash over how to steer EU economic policy in the coming months.

The EU needs to balance the need to boost sluggish economic growth through labour market and pension reforms, and the desire to protect its weakest citizens.

While Merkel tends to emphasize the benefits of the free market, France has traditionally championed a strong welfare state.

The two leaders are also likely to disagree over ambitious plans, soon to be put forward by Barroso, to overhaul the EU's budget and cut its generous spending on farmers.

The Lisbon Treaty, formerly known as the Reform Treaty, is designed to modernize the EU and speed up its decision-making process to take into account its "big bang" expansion of 2004, when 10 new member states joined. Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007, raising the total number of member states to 27.

It also aims to simplify its relationships with the outside world and give it more clout on the international scene.

While it still needs to be ratified by all 27 countries and is therefore not expected to come into force before 2009, the changes that the treaty introduces should provide plenty of food for thought in the months to come.

Under the new rules, the highly-respected Javier Solana of Spain is widely tipped to retain his role as foreign policy supremo.

But the impact of a full-time president of the European Council, representing member states in the EU executive, will largely depend on who will be elevated to this newly-created post.

Observers say the appointment of former British premier Tony Blair, or one of the two Rasmussens (Anders Fogh, the current prime minister of Denmark, and Poul Nyrup, his predecessor), would suggest that member states are willing to give it a high profile.

On the other hand, the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister and an EU old hand, would give the post less glamour but more substance.

At the end of the day, the future of the EU will largely depend on the individual performance of its most influential leaders.

"What Europe needs is leadership. It is exactly the lack of leadership that lead to years of navel-gazing," Incerti noted.

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