After a long and hot summer which has witnessed widespread heatwaves across the European continent, European political leaders will likely welcome the cool autumn breeze but not the advancing rumble of thunder that is the politics of EU enlargement and possible treaty change to accompany institutional reform. The upcoming State of the Union address scheduled for 14 September and the succession of Liz Truss as UK Prime Minister looks set to be a potential turning point in EU relations. But will the EU grasp it? Could a new intergovernmental political forum – acting alongside EU enlargement – ease the tension of EU treaty change? Such a forum might bridge the potential role prospective EU member states in Eastern Europe could play before formally joining and the necessity of forging a constructive post-Brexit relationship with the UK. It could resolve political and constitutional concerns.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a European Political Community (EPC) echoes previous calls for an alternative thinking and speaking space between democratic nations within Europe and EU member states who could collaborate together on areas of interest and resolve issues of pressing concern. The need for such a space is arguably more pressing now than ever. The recent granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and the prospect of further expansion east to Georgia and countries in the West Balkans has firmly placed EU treaty reform back on the agenda. With the road to EU membership being a very long and criteria-orientated one (the average accession negotiation is just under five years) in accordance with Articles 2 and 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Copenhagen Criteria, prospective members, especially ones who are within close geographical proximity to Russia, should be offered a forum for European unity and EU values. This is why an EPC could be important. It would offer short-term benefits to prospective EU member states who would be able to access it quickly. This is particularly pertinent to prospective members who are seeking to signal that they align with EU values. Critically, it would also bring into the political tent European members who have no interest in joining the EU, thereby avoiding constitutional collision with unwilling or sceptical European nations The UK is one such nation. Truss’ sceptical European stance could be softened in the long-run by such a forum which would have the potential to alleviate the UK-EU post-Brexit relationship.
Prior to the Russia-Ukraine war the EU had already ‘entered a stage of post-crisis pragmatism’. But as the emergency of war on the European continent instigated the EU’s own ‘geopolitical awakening’, a new EPC could be a politically complementary – and constitutional savvy – move for the EU and European nations, both in the short and long-term.
Similarities and lessons from EU constitutional history
In his May 2022 speech on the future of Europe, Macron argued that the EU has a duty to ‘open up a historic reflection commensurate with the events we are experiencing’. He subsequently referred to former French President, François Mitterrand, who in 1989 proposed the creation of a European Confederation – with the inclusion of Russia – when the Soviet Union collapsed. This idea never survived due to the perception that it was a less attractive alternative to EU membership status. Former Soviet Union countries also sought to integrate with Western Europe. Both ideals still exist to this day. Yet the key difference between then and now is that the passage of time has enabled Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, to have developed and deepened their political and cultural confidence in expressing themselves as European in correlation with EU values.
Contrasting the EU’s constitutional activities and developments of the late 1990s and early 2000s with today provides a holistic picture and pattern of the EU’s historical developments. It also enables us to consider what could be a more constructive path for its future. One of the most striking parallels is the constitutional and political ambitions of Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister, and President of the Council of the EU (January to June 1998) and Emmanuel Macron who was President of the Council of the EU between January and June this year. Under his Presidency, which commenced a few months after the Treaty of Amsterdam had been signed, Blair pushed for enlargement towards the East. This was actualised and enabled by the Treaty of Nice in 2003. Yet prior to the establishment of the Convention on the Future of Europe and the attempt to draft an EU constitution, Blair observed in a 2000 speech:
‘The trouble with the debate about Europe’s political future is that if we do not take care, we plunge into the thicket of institutional change, without first asking the basic question of what direction Europe should take […]. Whatever its origin, Europe today is no longer just about peace. It is about projecting collective power. That is one very clear reason, quite apart from the economic reasons, why the central European nations want to join.’
In his view – which simultaneously considered the prospect of a constitution for Europe and the likelihood of Britain (then a member state) being unreceptive towards it – an intergovernmental and political ‘Statement of Principles’ was considered. This, he conceived, would offer ‘a kind of charter of competences’ that would ultimately distinguish ‘what is best done at European level’ and would be approved in a ‘political, not legal document’.
Blair failed to gain momentum and support for a Statement of Principles within the European Parliament. But could it have put the EU on a different trajectory and made the UK more willing to embrace continued EU membership? Possibly. Might it have avoided the challenges associated with the 2004 EU Constitutional Treaty and subsequent rejection by Dutch and French voters? Perhaps. But what is clear is that the momentum and urgency for constitutional reform within the EU in the early 2000s has now transitioned into something much bigger: the need to practice realpolitik and avoid the ‘extreme temptation to become more inward-looking’ as national governments grapple with surging energy prices, volatile financial markets and potential for widespread social unrest caused by the cost of living crisis.
The EU’s current constitutional conundrum
A series of intentional actions and unfortunate events have shaped the EU’s current constitutional conundrum. Firstly, the year-long Conference on the Future of Europe which ended in May 2022 aimed to interact with and give citizens the opportunity to voice their thoughts on the EU’s work and institutional structure – effectively a ‘bottom up’ exercise to counter the criticism of the EU’s democratic deficit. This was first proposed by Macron in 2019 in response to Brexit, reflecting his desire to ‘advance Europe’ and make the EU’s relevance visible to its citizens. The intentional nature of the Conference – and vocal declaration by President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, that ‘changing the Treaties’ could be on the cards ‘if need be’ – highlights that the EU’s thirteen-year constitutional hiatus since the Lisbon Treaty was coming to a close. This was indicated by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a speech last week in Prague where he asserted that ‘We cannot shy away from this debate’ whilst Macron confirmed in May that he is in favour of the European Parliament’s (and Commission-backed) proposal to form a Convention – perhaps similar in format to the Convention on the Future of Europe in the early 2000s – to revise the treaties.
No doubt the EU’s ‘challenging decade’ of the 2010s was on Macron’s mind when he initially contemplated the Conference, but the two unfortunate events that have since acted as an active catalyst for revising the EU treaties – the Covid-19 pandemic (which delayed the commencement of the Conference) and the war in Ukraine – have highlighted how the present and future is becoming increasingly crisis-ridden. In turn, this has invited close and critical reflection on the EU’s role and what it represents. On the flip side, it also instigates questions about what the EU’s role could and should not be, and what it ought to represent and do in the decades to come.
An EU moving ‘in the direction of post-ideological and pragmatic crisis management’ calls for more than constitutional change but a fostering of a new forum which facilitates dialogue between the EU and its European neighbours. It is likely that we will find out further details about the proposed EPC in the upcoming State of the Union address but its overarching aim would be to ‘foster a feeling of belonging to the same democratic area and sharing the same values and destiny, on both sides’ and guarantee a ‘European perspective’. Heads of state or government of the participating countries would take the lead and meet at least twice a year focusing on ‘political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular of our youth.’ Significantly, joining it would not prejudge future accession to the EU, and it would not be closed to those who have left the – including the UK. This room for political and constitutional manoeuvring could be a clever and cohesive move for all nations involved.
Whilst any proposals for EU treaty reform would require agreement by all member states, it is possible that an EPC could appeal to the 13 member states who have openly declared that they ‘do not support unconsidered and premature attempts to launch a process towards Treaty change’ but who do seek to invest their ‘political energy’ in ‘finding solutions to the questions to which our citizens expect answers and handling the urgent geopolitical challenges facing Europe’. Implementing the proposals from the first-ever Conference on the Future of Europe via treaty change whilst simultaneously launching a government-led EPC could reduce the likelihood of member states holding a national referendum on treaty change. Conducted by national governments, EU treaty change is more or less straightforward. But approval via national parliaments and domestic referendums is less so. It will be up to each member state to decide whether the citizen-led Conference provides the right level of direct democracy that would justify avoiding a national referendum. Political actors would thus be wise to balance the lessons from the failed 2004 EU Constitutional Treaty with resolving the current political crises that will likely fare better in a politically collaborative environment at both national and European level.
The British perspective
Current relations between the UK and EU have become unstable and testing because of Brexit, but it need not remain this way indefinitely. Truss is likely to push forward with the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill which, if passed, would break international law. In consequence, the EU has launched seven legal cases against the UK. Concerns about the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights in light of the UK’s proposed Bill of Rights continues to linger. Meanwhile, the UK recently launched legal proceedings against the EU for blocking access to its scientific research programmes as agreed under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Despite this, the EU has sought to engage in dialogue with the UK. Reports that the EU is planning to invite the UK to an informal meeting of European states in October suggests that the EU is actively seeking to engage with the UK on an EPC. It looks unlikely that senior members of the UK Government will prioritise attending over the Conservative Party’s annual party conference, with which the meeting clashes, but should it wish to be treated as a serious partner to the EU and maintain its international standing it would be wise – and indeed diplomatic – to engage.
Analysing the UK’s current approach to the EU, Truss is unlikely to advance the UK joining a new EPC. Some sceptics claim that ‘the British would evidently be put off by an organisation in which EU institutions played a major role’. But such a move in future should not be ruled out and is more probable under a different UK Government which could materialise within a few years, if not before. There is also a generational divide, with younger people more receptive towards a strong UK-EU relationship. As some prominent supporters of Brexit are fond of saying, the UK left the EU, not Europe. A willingness to be involved in, or at least to join a conversation about, a new EPC would demonstrate a genuine commitment underlying that rhetoric.
Taking the long-term view – and exercising realpolitik – has the potential of forging stronger UK-EU relations than when the UK was an EU member state. It would also signal to Ukraine, which the UK has resolutely supported since the war started, that the UK rejects democratic backsliding and is willing to collaborate with likeminded European nations who not only ‘believe in the principles of democracy’ but practices them.
With thanks to Mark Elliott for comments on an earlier version.