Sir Stephen Wall, former adviser to Tony Blair on the European Union, argues that the EU is distracted and divided by national rivalries, weakening its unity over key issues such as energy policy and dealing with Russia.
”If we cannot work swiftly and effectively in partnership with them there is little prospect of effective cooperation with anyone else,” he writes.
Is the future of the European Union in jeopardy? Sir Stephen answers readers’ questions in a live online Q&A.
Would the constitutional treaty create a European state, in your view?
SW: No. And those of us involved in negotiating it were stupid not to see that calling it a constitution would alienate those who wanted it to lead to a federal Europe and those who feared that it would. I do not think there would ever have been a single European state, even at a time, in the 80s when Helmut Kohl talked of a united states of Europe. Now we are 27, it simply will not happen.
I think the EU Heads of government will agree on Sunday in Berlin to revert to the issue but whatever emerges will have to be very different from the Constitutional Treaty of 2004. There are some practical changes we do need to make on voting weights (because the Nice treaty was not fair in this respect), on not having the chair of the European council change every six months and so on. But France and the Netherlands (let alone UK) cannot afford to risk referendums so we have to have something that governments can truthfully say is really different and capable of being ratified by parliament.
Gordon Brown was described as a Stalinist this week. Do you think he will be a good European? The signs aren’t too promising so far, are they?
Steven Smith, Brussels
SW: No they are not. Apart from the USA (East Coast Democrats) Gordon Brown does not much like “abroad”. These days, he rarely goes to the meetings of EU finance ministers and of course, he is not a member or the eurozone group of ministers that take most of the relevant decisions anyway.
Tony Blair believed instinctively that Britain’s interest lay in a close partnership with other EU members even if, as on Iraq, he did not always carry it into practice. I do not think Gordon Brown shares that instinct but, if he wants to achieve results on energy, climate change and poverty he will have to work with our EU partners. The UK relationship with the United States is not going to be as close as it was, at least while President Bush is there, so the EU sea is the only one there for us to swim in.
I would be interested to hear your views on the French elections. How important do you think they will be for breaking the gridlock in Europe? And who do you think would be the best French president for the rest of Europe?
Frederick Schulenburg, London
SW: Obviously, a new face at the Elysee will create a new dynamic and, whoever takes over in May will try to form a close partnership with Angela Merkel. But the EU is so different now from the 80s when Kohl and Mitterrand set the agenda, and public opinion in all EU countries so much more sceptical, that I do not think the arrival of a new president will bring about a sea change.
If Segolene Royal carried through her declared economic policies I think that would create a split, certainly with the UK and probably with Germany as well. Sarkozy is an economic reformer but he strikes me as a nationalistic politician, whereas I think we need less nationalism and to renew our commitment to strong EU institutions. So I suppose I am a Bayrou man, though I hope no French voter reads this because any British endorsement is likely to be the kiss of death to him.
Would the UK be in a better position in Europe if it was part of the eurozone, and in the interests of unity, shouldn’t eurozone membership be mandatory for all EU countries?
SW: In law, eurozone membership is mandatory for all those member states who meet the economic criteria, except for Britain and Denmark, which negotiated the right to ”opt in” at the time of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. In practice, no government can be forced. The Swedes gave themselves an “opt-out” until such time as their government thought it could win a referendum on the subject. But it lost.
Partly because of our painful withdrawal from the ERM and partly because of the good performance of our economy, it is hard to see a British government risking a referendum on euro membership in the near future. I think that it would be in our interest to join, however, because if the European countries are going to compete then we need to manage our economies on a more co-operative basis than in the past. But I only see it happening if the other EU economies start to do significantly better than ours.
Gordon Brown has been notably more eurosceptic than Tony Blair, particularly over his reluctance to join the euro. What effect will a Brown premiership have on Britain’s place in Europe?
Caroline Knight, London
SW: Despite Iraq, and despite not taking Britain into the euro, Tony Blair has advanced British EU policy quite a lot: European peacekeeping, the fight against poverty and action on energy and climate change all being areas where he has taken a lead. Gordon Brown is more nationalistic. But he will not be able to achieve much on energy and climate change without working with our EU partners.
My fear is that the renewed debate on the EU constitution will put Gordon Brown in a difficult position domestically and may push him to being more sceptic than he would otherwise be in order to keep in with the eurosceptic press. He will be a tough negotiator (quite Thatcherite) and will have to watch the balance between advancing Britain’s national interest and losing influence with partners who may feel alienated.
Do you think Tony Blair should take up some European role in the future? Maybe president of the European Union, if the constitution ever comes into force?
David Latimer, London
SW: I fear that Iraq might prevent Tony Blair being acceptable to all the membership and, if we get a full-time president of the European Council that person is more likely to come from one of the medium/smaller countries. The smaller member states are nervous about the big boys pushing them around.
I’m starting to get worried about the rapid expansion of the EU. Where will it all end? Should Turkey join? Where do you see the final frontiers of Europe?
Thomas Zalecki, Prague
SW: The EC told Turkey in the 60s that it would treat it as a European state. We cannot now turn round and say we did not mean it, especially if the Turks meet the terms of membership in due course. I can see the countries of the Balkan and Ukraine joining eventually. Not Russia. Of course it is harder to manage a large union but the enlargement to include countries like yours is our greatest achievement: helping achieve stability and prosperity.
Why can’t Europe just be a single market? Why do all these dreamers in Brussels keep trying to turn it into a superstate?
SW: I think the superstate dreams are pretty much over. In a union of 27 they are anyway not going to be realised, especially with economic giants like China and India emerging. That is why the present president of the Commission talks of the Europe of results: energy, climate change, jobs with the minimum of harmonisation.
Have Tony Blair’s 10 years in power been a wasted opportunity to make the pro-European cause in Britain? Brits seem to be just as eurosceptic as they were when he came to office.
SW: Once Tony Blair had made his pact with Rupert Murdoch that was bound to limit his ability to make the case. After Iraq he was also weakened. And there was always disagreement between 10 and 11 Downing Street. Faced with offending Tony or offending Gordon most ministers preferred to keep their heads down. Missed opportunity, as you say.
Do you think that the rapidly-growing concerns about climate change might precipitate the change in heart amongst individual voters, and by turn, their governments, that would allow the more efficient EU that you argue? If not, is there any other hope on the horizon?
Kathleen Loveday, London
SW: I hope so. The original inspiration behind the EC was the meltdown of Europe in WWII ie: people could see that something radical had to be done. I think that same feeling is inspired by climate change but, of course, because it is a gradual process the pressure on political leaders is not quite as immediate. I do not think a change of perception by voters in Britain will happen automatically.
The FT had a survey this week that showed that ”bureaucracy” is what first comes to mind when British people think of the EU. So, I think the government has a duty to tell people that the EU is the best route for us to get leverage on the issue of climate change. To his credit, David Miliband is doing that with his ideas of the EU as an ”environmental union”.
What do you think should be Europe’s headline goal in terms of international relations and foreign policy? To become a superpower, or to continue along the path of civil power? What are the main challenges for Europe’s security and defence policy? To continue on the way towards multinational forces, or to shift to the creation of a truly European army?
Joo Paulo Simes, Brazil
SW: It used to be British policy for the EU to be a superpower not a super state, but even super power is unrealistic. Economically, we are being overtaken and we have no ambition to be a big military power. I think Europe’s strength lies in soft power: the fact that we share democratic values and have economic and social systems that have some appeal to other countries.
I think Nato will remain the basis of European defence ie: protection from outside attack, for the foreseeable future, but there is a lot more we can do in Europe to bring our defence equipment into a common procurement system and unify our command structures. Our essential role will remain peacekeeping.