Open Europe Blog

A few weeks ago Lord Owen, the former Foreign Minister, gave a speech, reworked for the Spectator here, in which he very eloquently set out the future challenges for Britain in an EU that is rapidly changing as a result of the euro crisis.

Owen noted that:

On 7 February 2012 the German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated very clearly her direction of travel. The eurozone crisis for her is to be the springboard to another Treaty to replace the Lisbon Treaty. She said ‘Step-by-step, European politics is merging with domestic politics.’ She called for ‘comprehensive structural reform’ of the EU with closer integration to overcome what she called ‘major shortcomings’.

She had some months earlier, barely recognised in the UK, signed up to campaigning with fellow Christian Democrats across Europe for direct elections for the posts of President of the Commission and much more surprisingly and far-reachingly for the President of the European Council.

All this might seem some way off, but in an interview with Welt am Sonntag at the weekend, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle repeated that it was “important to open the next chapter of European integration”. He argued,

“I regret that it has not been possible to adopt a truly European Constitution. We’ve noted that the Lisbon Treaty has design flaws. Many decision-making mechanisms are too complicated, and there is still a lack of transparency and clarity. Europe needs a common constitution, which the citizens should decide over in a referendum.”

Westerwelle also argued in favour of a directly elected European President, and a bicameral parliamentary system, with the European Council, where EU leaders meet, becoming an upper chamber alongside the European Parliament.

What does this mean for the UK?

Well, this debate about ‘political union’ is likely be the next stage of the plan to salvage the euro, after the debates over the fiscal treaty have ended. Whether it can ever work is the glaring question, especially if Westerwelle is good to his word about putting it to a referendum, but, clearly, significant elements of the German political machine are thinking that this is what Europe will need to discuss in the long-term.

Here are some more of Lord Owen’s thoughts:

How should Britain react? We should firstly not react! This is our EU by Treaty; it can only be changed by unanimity and we must have a credible but different design and the determination to stay at the negotiating table until there is unanimity. No walk outs, just quiet persistence. We must have the confidence to set out a new design for two Europes — a wider and an inner — that will live alongside, in harmony with each other…

…I think a dividing line along these lines in Europe will soon become fairly clear cut. It will become an inescapable choice with the pace forced by the urgent needs of the eurozone. Probably a decision in principle will need to be taken in the UK before the fixed term date for a General Election in 2015. There will, if the past is anything to go by, be for some months the usual British reluctance to face up to the reality of this German-French plan. It, incidentally, will not change much if Sarkozy loses in France in May or Merkel loses to the Social Democrats in 2013….

…Any UK political party that ignores the rapidly emerging challenge in Europe is putting its head in the sand.

Westerwelle’s comments illustrate how some important people are thinking around Europe and that the UK needs to prepare itself for this hugely important conversation sooner rather than later.

Today, the Fresh Start Project, the group of MPs calling for a new approach to UK relations with the EU, will launch its first Green Paper chapter, covering EU social and employment law.

Co-leader of the group, Andrea Leadsom MP will appear on BBC 2’s Daily Politics show at lunchtime to explain that the Project is looking at the impact of the EU on the UK, and evaluating and proposing options for change. With the help of ideas supplied by Open Europe and other think tanks, this will culminate in the publication of a draft Green Paper on European Reform by July 2012 and a draft White Paper by Dec 2012.

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