“Muddling through” will not work. That was the view shared by all participants at Friends of Europe’s “State of Europe” event held in Brussels yesterday. There were, however, few other points of agreement at a roundtable discussion that brought together key European policy-makers, business leaders and experts to discuss the ongoing eurozone crisis. The event was seen as the “first duel” in a battle to decide whether or not there is to be EU treaty change.
Opening the discussion, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso argued that we are at “the most critical juncture in our Union’s history” and considers the next European Council to be one of the most important meetings since the beginning of European integration. The meeting of EU heads of government, which was delayed to allow more time to negotiate the current deadlock, will now be held on 23rd October – one day short of the anniversary of “Black Thursday” when, in 1929, a crash on the New York Stock Exchange brought about the Great Depression.
Responding to the Slovakian parliament’s earlier rejection of an expanded EU bailout fund, President Barroso criticised the EU’s ponderous decision-making process:
Isn’t it strange that the IMF takes decisions by qualified majority? And we share the same currency and need unanimity? It’s absurd. I respect the sovereignty of Slovakia, but also the sovereignty of those that want to go ahead.
The Commission President was cautious about pressing for treaty change, but left himself some room for manoeuvre. “We are open to possible treaty change… but we have decisions we can make now. And by now I mean: now!” argued Barroso, thumping the table in front of him to make his point. President Barroso did appear to accept, however, the possibility of treaty change over the long-term:
This is for the medium-term… We need some time for more ambitious change [because] the public space remains more than 27 public spaces in Europe. In terms of the sense of belonging to a single European community, there’s a lot to do.
Duncan Niederauer, the current CEO and Director of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Euronext, spoke after Mr Barroso and urged Europeans to take the crisis seriously:
The word ‘unprecedented’ gets over-used, but in this case it’s worth it. This is a challenge of unprecedented magnitude… It is critically important for business and political leaders to work together.
Tony Barber, Europe Editor for the Financial Times, summed up the discussion at the event:
The single most important topic that was on everyone’s minds was: guess what? Treaty change. Why is it that treaty change keeps on popping its head over the parapet? It’s because the question of the balance between national sovereignty and European integration hasn’t been settled.
Some were fiercely opposed to suggestions of opening up the treaties. Egidijus Meilunas, Lithuania’s Deputy Minister for European Affairs, argued that we already have all the necessary tools at our disposal:
I don’t think it’s rocket science. I don’t think we need treaty change. We’re all in debt. All the member-states are in debt. The problem is the lenders don’t trust us… It’s like a boat with a hole in the bottom. You need to plug the hole… We don’t need treaty change for that. We simply need to follow through with the promises we’ve already made… This doesn’t need another three to five years of headaches and breaking swords.
Joaquín Almunia, Vice-President of the Commission, agreed – arguing that the governments of Europe were not ready to embark on another lengthy debate about treaty change:
The problems were everywhere, but the main problem was at the Council. The member-states were not politically aware of what was at stake. Each country tried to find its own solution; ignoring the possibilities for a euro-wide solution. They tried to find solution through a piecemeal strategy… To embark on a treaty change is a very risky operation. I don’t recommend it. We are not mature enough for this.
Others, however, were adamant that only through treaty change would the EU be able to finally draw a line underneath the crisis. Stefano Micossi, Director General of ASSONIME, a business association in Rome, as well as a Professor at the College of Europe, argued that:
If it was just a matter of putting the house in order, then we would need no treaty change… But in order to rescue the euro, we will need to use monetary support by the ECB to an extent that, in many countries, public opinion sees as inconsistent with the treaties… We will then need to move toward quasi-fiscal union.
Micossi went on to argue, however, that treaty change could be undertaken quickly and efficiently if the scope of the treaty was limited to the 17 eurozone members instead of involving all 27 EU states:
The new treaty is going to be a euro treaty, nothing like the Lisbon treaty.
We’ve had a lot of discussion on Debating Europe about this very topic. Some of our commenters, like Protesilaos from Greece, have argued that the only sustainable solution to the eurozone crisis is a complete overhaul of the treaties and full fiscal union. Others have argued that even the current arrangements are a step too far in terms of sacrificing national sovereignty.
What about YOU? Do you agree with those calling for a new EU treaty? Or do you think we just don’t have time to re-open old wounds? Let us know your opinions in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts in the run up to the EU Council meeting on October 23rd for their reaction.