By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 14, 2007
PARIS, Dec. 13 -- European leaders on Thursday signed a new treaty intended to revitalize efforts to build a more united and powerful European Union, replacing a proposed constitution rejected by many voters two years ago with a document that in most member countries will never go before the public.
The 175-page Treaty of Lisbon incorporates most of the proposed changes and language of the failed constitution, but does so through a series of amendments to existing laws and treaties that can be approved by governments and legislatures without being put to voters. Only one of the 27 member countries, Ireland, plans to hold a referendum on the treaty.
The document calls for creating a permanent post of president, which an individual would hold for 2 1/2 years, and junking the current six-month presidency that rotates among member governments. It removes references to a European flag, anthem and other symbols that many people found an affront to national identity.
Critics say the treaty is a legalistic sleight-of-hand meant to thwart the will of the people, many of whom are more skeptical than their leaders about the continuing expansion of the bloc.
"It's a willful attempt to mislead the public," said Neil O'Brien, director of Open Europe, a London-based group that is fighting for greater openness, flexibility and accountability in European institutions.
He cited a poll the group commissioned in March showing that 75 percent of people surveyed across Europe, including a majority in all 27 E.U. countries, wanted a referendum on any new treaty that gives more power to the E.U.
An analysis of the treaty by Open Europe found that "96 percent of it is a word-for-word carbon copy" of the rejected constitution. "This is a deeply dishonest process," the group alleged.
Supporters of the treaty say it is a different creature altogether from the rejected constitution and therefore does not need ratification by the public. They argue that changes enshrined in the treaty are essential to modernize, streamline and democratize E.U. institutions to account for the union's growth from six member countries in 1972 to the 27 it has today.
"History will remember this day as a day in which new paths of hope were opened toward the European deal," Portuguese Prime Minister Jos¿ S¿crates said during the signing ceremony. "With the Treaty of Lisbon, Europe finally overcomes the political and institutional impasse that limited its capacity to act during the last few years."
To go into effect, the treaty needs to be ratified by lawmakers in all E.U. countries, but there is no requirement for it to be put to a popular vote.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the only E.U. head of government who did not attend Thursday's ceremony in Lisbon, is under intense public pressure to hold a referendum. His predecessor, Tony Blair, had promised such a vote on the constitution, but Brown maintains that a referendum is not necessary for the new treaty, which has provisions allowing Britain to opt out of European policies that it does not like in areas such as immigration and human rights.
Ireland, however, is preparing a referendum. In a poll in late October for the Irish Times newspaper, 25 percent of registered voters surveyed said they would vote to ratify the treaty, 13 percent were opposed and 62 percent said they were undecided.
Countries have until the end of 2008 to adopt the treaty, which would become law in January 2009.
European politicians were stunned by the rejection of the proposed constitution in 2005 by voters in France and the Netherlands, two founding E.U. members. Despite its endorsement by leaders in all the E.U. countries, the document was withdrawn from further consideration and the union began a period of political drift and identity crisis.
Polls showed that voters were highly skeptical about continued expansion of the bloc, rising immigration and the ceding of national power and sovereignty to what many saw as a European superstate of unelected bureaucrats, many from nations other than their own. In addition, the constitution was criticized as too long, too complicated and poorly explained.
The new document seems to face many of the same hurdles.
The 175-page treaty, with 313 articles, 88 pages of protocols and a 25-page annex, is written as a conglomeration of inserts, deletions and amendments to existing treaties, the texts of which are not provided. European leaders insist the treaty is substantially different from the failed constitution, but they also assert it is substantively the same.
"They have taken the original draft constitution, blown it apart into separate elements, and have then attached them, one by one, to existing treaties," former French president Val¿ry Giscard d'Estaing wrote in Britain's Independent newspaper. "The Treaty of Lisbon is thus a catalogue of amendments. It is unpenetrable for the public."