Karl Marx once famously remarked that referendums are the last resort of despots and autocrats like Louis Napoleon. He accused this political device of being in effect counter-democratic. The examples we know of different referendums held in recent history certainly indicate that they are increasingly unpredictable in outcome. Invariably they provide unparalleled opportunities to put the boot into the government in office or to register protest votes on issues which often have little to do with the question which the referendum was intended to address.
Few were prepared to predict the result of the recent Irish referendum, even two days before it took place. The resounding ‘Yes’ vote has been followed swiftly by the signature of the Ratification Act by Poland. This now means that the draft Lisbon Treaty has been ratified democratically by all 27 Member States of the EU.
Both the Lower Chamber of the Czech Republic in February 2009 and the Upper House in May 2009 have approved the Lisbon text. A ruling is also expected shortly from the Czech constitutional Court to confirm that the Court does not consider that objections raised by President Klaus’ supporters imply that the treaty would violate the Czech constitution.
Nevertheless, this still leaves the bizarre situation that the adoption of the Treaty is held up by the single person of the Czech President whose constitutional powers do not allow him to withhold his signature, though the Czech constitution does not set any deadline for him to put pen to paper. Undoubtedly, internal Czech and external pressures will be put on President Klaus to sign on the dotted line before the end of this year in time to permit the new Lisbon Treaty provisions to come into force from the beginning of 2010. This would mean that the new composition of the incoming European Commission could be settled and the designation made of a President of a European Council (in place of the six-month rotating Presidency) as well as the choice of a successor to Javier Solana as the new Vice President for Common Foreign and Security Policy .
The two remaining European Summits to be held in October and December this year, under the Swedish Presidency, will be focused on finding a viable compromise formula to deal with Klaus’s assertion that the Charter of Fundamental Rights (integral in future to the Treaty itself) would imply the right to legal redress of Sudeten claiming their land rights. Should this fail, we can probably expect a challenge within the Czech Republic to President Klaus’s authority but with little certainty as yet on how long that would take. A further lengthy delay would mean that the Pandorra’s box could then be opened by an incoming Cameron administration .
The lengthy political posturing and delays which we have witnessed over the past few years on the draft treaty are clearly unhelpful to the role and image of the EU in the world. Paradoxically, whilst the EU integration process appears at a low ebb, we have seen the coordination powers of the EU developing strongly in response to global and globalization pressures, triggered especially by the banking and financial crisis with a new set of regulatory arrangements introduced to protect the EU Member States from future repeats.
This trend reflects the fact that individually Member States lack the power and capacity to deal with the interdependent, European and global scale of the problems facing financial services. The G20 machinery which has emerged to address the world crisis will surely lead to more and more pressure to have a single, co-ordinated EU voice on the global stage, though the larger Member States which are inside the process will be reluctant to lose their privileged position. The climate change agenda on the global level and world-wide internal security concerns have also demanded more and more coordinated action by the EU so as to punch the collective European weight more strongly in global negotiations.
The search for a more effective architecture of global governance, across the whole range of policy concerns, is leading inexorably to stronger EU level machinery to negotiate at the global level, as occurred earlier in the field of external trade following the creation of the single European market.
Despite the limits and weaknesses of the Lisbon Treaty, one of the most significant reforms it will introduce will give much greater authority to the European Parliament as a co-decision making institution with the Council of Ministers on most areas of EU policy as well as in determining the EU budget. National Parliaments, too, will have a greater say in the process in future. The same will be the case for those ‘regions’ like Wales which have legislative powers and which will have the right of pre-scrutiny of proposed EU legislation as an explicit part of their Member state scrutiny. Consequently, the new Treaty will represent a considerable though still incomplete move to improve the democratic governance of the Union.
The scale and impact of the recession are now being felt throughout Europe. We can expect harder times over the next period with high levels of joblessness, increasing disparities and inequalities, and ‘black spots’ of poverty undermining the fabric of our communities. Wales will be no exception. The EU’s central challenge will be to focus as much on the social situation as on economic growth.
We have lived through a period dominated by the unregulated rule of market forces. Now they need sound regulation which is properly policed and implemented.
Sustainable development and the wellbeing of people need to be much clearly seen as an integral and inclusive part of this policy agenda. Indeed, economic growth will be increasingly dependent on successful sustainable development policies. That is why the so-called Lisbon Strategy will again dominate the EU policy debate, with this new switch of emphasis and concern.
The search for a better balance between economic and social policy has been at the heart of the Lisbon agenda since its inception. Originally inspired by Jacques Delors in the 1990s, it reflects the continental European concern to promote a model of society which puts a high premium on the social protection of citizens and investment in their skills and versatility.
European Commission President Barroso is committed to push this agenda which will be the centerpiece of EU strategy from 2010 onwards. He will be backed by a strong majority in the newly elected European Parliament, motivated by the need to create more jobs and reduce the dramatic levels of youth unemployment. In this context, if the Tories gain power in 2010 and seek to disengage from and opt out of EU policies, especially in the field of employment and social policy, the public will find it hard to see the coherence with the Cameron claim of putting social and community cohesion at the centre of his agenda.
Crucially, too, the policy priorities defined in the Lisbon Agenda are being adopted as requirements for the application of the EU’s Structural and Cohesion Funds. This, of course, will primarily affect those Member States which are beneficiaries and put pressure on them not to make the error of the past committed by some Member States of clawing back the additional European resources to prop up their own budgets rather than breaking new ground with the necessary reforms.
For Wales, in the remaining period till 2013 of the present allocation of Cohesion funding, this is of crucial importance. The National Assembly should debate the thrust of the Lisbon Agenda and its relevance to the needs of Wales. It should identify more effective ways of linking EU with domestic policies to achieve greater impact. After all, such linkage was one of the four claws o
f the Celtic Tiger’s success story in generating strong growth before the present calamitous housing bubble hit Ireland.
It is in this context too that the replacement of the Barnett formula is an urgent priority. The Assembly should be insisting on reform of the present outdated system of devolution financing. There is great urgency to move to a new UK-wide approach based on meeting the needs of the constituent nations and regions on a fair basis. This would be designed to lift the more disadvantaged nations and regions to higher levels of performance in the common interest of the cohesion of the UK as a whole. In the coming electoral period, civil society throughout Wales should be requiring the political parties in Wales to stand up and be counted on their commitment on this issue.
Because of the constant interplay between EU and domestic policy across so many areas of public policy, it is vital that the National Assembly should play an active role in the EU’s organs of decision-making. In particular, it should demonstrate to the Welsh public the difference made by the EU’s Objective 1 and Convergence funding to Wales in terms of the quality of life and work of Welsh people. That, too, will be enhanced once an effective system of governance for Wales is introduced to eliminate the limitations of 2006 Government of Wales Act and the National Assembly is given the tools to do its job properly with confidence.