Tension in Brussels as ball placed in EU's court
ANALYSIS:Treaty change may be on the agenda whether wanted or not
A certain tension was detectable in Brussels yesterday despite the European Commission’s tactful response to David Cameron’s speech.
In many ways the prevailing mood in the run-up to the speech had been one of “ennui” – continental Europe has long been used to British ambivalence towards European political integration.
An 1823 speech from then foreign secretary Lord Canning captures it nicely. “Intimately connected as we are with the system of Europe, it does not follow that we are therefore called upon to mix ourselves on every occasion, with a restless and meddling activity, in the concerns of the nations which surround us.”
That ambivalence towards “the system of Europe” has characterised Britain’s relationship with the continent ever since.
But while Cameron’s pronouncements can be viewed simply as another example of centuries-old uneasiness with European political engagement, yesterday’s speech was worrying for Europe.
Gauntlet thrown down
Most significantly, the prime minister threw down the gauntlet to Europe to open up a renegotiation of the European treaties that bind the union together.
The essence of the speech was that, while Britain wants to stay in the EU, it only wants to do so if the EU changes.
That involves treaty change, something to which the EU is opposed. The EU had launched a pre-emptive strike in this regard.
The clear message from Brussels since before Christmas has been that treaty renegotiation is not on the agenda. While European leaders yesterday repeated their views that an “a la carte” Europe is not an option, Brussels is not ignoring the issue.
Crucially, Cameron has promised a referendum on European Union membership if the Conservatives are elected in the next general election whether or not the European treaties are reopened.
This means that between now and potentially up to the end of 2017, focus will be on the EU’s next move.
Cameron has effectively put the ball in Europe’s court – the option to exit Europe is, after all, available to Britain through article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which states “any member state may decide to withdraw . . . in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”.
Instead of this nuclear option Cameron has instead opted to see what Europe comes up with before it goes to the people.
In this sense, Europe, through its willingness or not to engage in treaty change, will implicitly share responsibility for what ever decision is made by the British electorate in any post-2015 referendum.
So what would treaty renegotiations involve?
The answer lies in article 48 of the Lisbon treaty. Firstly, the changes envisaged by Cameron are likely to involve the convening of a European convention.
This would need the support of a majority of members in order to be convened (15 states once Croatia joins). If that proceeds, a protracted process would follow involving various institutions of the EU.
Any recommendations for treaty changes made by the convention would be put to an intergovernmental conference involving all members states and would have to be ratified by all.
If the proposed changes don’t justify a full convention the process will be much simpler, though it will still go to an intergovernmental conference, and will need ratification by all member states. This would most likely include an Irish referendum.
The procedural and legislative web that may lie ahead indicates that Cameron’s speech should not be taken lightly despite the mixture of defiance and indifference that characterised the response of European politicians yesterday. It means that a long and protracted chapter in Europe’s legislative process may now be about to begin.