The public remarks made by a group of EU leaders, including Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, hinting at “the need to reform” the bloc have suddenly given life to the idea of a new EU treaty that would have been very unlikely just a few months ago.
The war in Ukraine and its implications for EU defence and security policy, and Ukrainian integration, have focused minds. To paraphrase Lord Tennyson, ‘in spring an EU leader’s fancy turns to thoughts of treaty change’.
But observers of EU integration will know that when momentum for treaty change begins, it can quickly become irresistible.
In one sense, we are due. It has been more than a decade since the Lisbon Treaty, which salvaged the substance of the failed Constitutional Treaty. In any case, a good crisis should never be wasted.
But the new momentum does not mean that we should expect an intergovernmental conference and a new treaty any time soon. For one thing, the joint position opposing ‘premature’ attempts to open up the treaties, signed by twelve national governments, is going to be very tough to overcome.
Sweden and Finland are about to join NATO, and may well, understandably, see EU reform as an unwanted distraction. The idea that all states will agree to scrap national vetoes on foreign, security and defence policy looks extremely unlikely.
A number of EU states have neutrality on defence enshrined in their national constitutions that would need to be rewritten. Besides, treaty change, as we know, is an uncertain process that takes years from inception to ratification, involving potential referendums.
And as the Constitutional Treaty experience showed, it can end in collapse and reputational damage to the EU.
“While we are not ruling out any options at this stage, we do not support rash and hasty attempts to launch a process that would lead to treaty changes,” said a joint letter signed by thirteen countries, most of them from Scandinavia, central and eastern Europe.
“We already have a Europe that works. We do not need to rush into institutional reforms to deliver results,” the letter added.
This is a pretty substantial roadblock.
It would be different if just a couple of countries were taking this stance. More plausible is that the states demanding more nimble EU action use the provisions in the existing treaties that allow groups of states to move forward using ‘enhanced cooperation’.
Schengen and the European Public Prosecutor are successful examples of this.
As for defence cooperation, meanwhile, the European Defence Initiative, on which the Permanent Structured Cooperation in Defence is based, is almost two decades old. An intergovernmental treaty on defence and foreign policy among willing states would be easier to broker than attempting to convert the unwilling.
By definition, a political union of 27 states is inevitably going to need its rulebook regularly reformed. That’s all good, but treaty reform is not an effective crisis management tool.
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Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]