Limits of EU centralization

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LONDON — In Lisbon, yet another European Union Treaty has been signed, this one purporting to replace all previous treaties and to give Europe the pattern of governance it needs to meet the future.

Wrangles and disputes have already broken out between politicians and lawyers all over Europe as to what the new treaty really means. Does it preserve and settle a Europe of nation states, or does it move more powers to the EU’s central institutions and weaken the freedom of the 27 (soon to be 28) member states to act as they want?

In Britain, in particular, where skepticism and suspicion about too much European integration has always been deep, the debate has already become furious, and threatens to get more so.

Demands for a referendum on the treaty are growing intense, voiced by the media and by an increasingly confident Conservative Party. Similar demands are being made in Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere, but it is the British situation that is the most threatening to the treaty’s architects. Opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority, higher than 70 percent, want a referendum, and well over 60 percent would vote for rejecting the treaty.

This could always change, as the popular mood is always volatile, a bit like the weather. This is the case against any referendum or plebiscite. But in this age of individual empowerment, thanks to the computer and the microchip, it is a case that governments find harder and harder to overcome. That is what many European governments found when a similar treaty was put forward three years ago — the so-called EU Constitutional Treaty. Referendums had to be conceded in France, the Netherlands and Britain. The French and Dutch duly defeated the treaty; in Britain, the referendum was called off but would certainly have produced the same result.

This time the argument is that there should be the same procedure for what is claimed to be roughly the same treaty even though cleansed of the dangerous word “Constitution.” New British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, already besieged by other problems, is under massive pressure to concede.

Bitter exchanges fill the air as to whether the British position is somehow protected by special “opt-outs,” or so-called red lines, allegedly safeguarding British independence is such areas as criminal justice, labor and social policy, and even foreign policy.

The stakes appear to be very high. A veto from one member state ditches the whole project. If this treaty goes the way of the last one, then the EU will be in deep crisis, or so it is claimed.

In practice, the crisis will be limited to the hopes of those European leaders who still passionately want an integrated Union with a stronger center and with a stronger single voice in world affairs. For them it will be a major setback and lead to cries that the whole Union could disintegrate.

The EU would struggle on, concentrating on practical matters of cooperation in the European region. The real issue behind all the claims and counterclaims is much deeper. It is the issue that once faced the now vanished Soviet Union, faces the rulers in Beijing today, may even now be undermining the iron central grip of the junta in Burma (Myanmar), and nowadays faces every large corporation or organization: How much centralization is desirable or practicable or possible?

In today’s world of vastly dispersed data and knowledge, with well over a billion PCs or laptops connected to the worldwide Web, can central authorities ever physically keep up?

Can they ever know as much as the myriad constituent interests and groupings they seek to control? The answer is no, as the Soviets found out. That was a mighty relief and a blow for freedom, and yet it is also a dangerous answer.

Too much decentralization, with too much weakness at the governmental level, spells not freedom but anarchy. People today are more split-minded than ever. They glory in their new empowerment and seek more delegation and localization of decisions and rules than ever before. But they want strong authorities and strong leaders to maintain law, order and stability in a dark and threatening world.

The British people are no exception. They want to be good Europeans and good neighbors, but they do not want too much intrusive control from on high. They want sensible cooperation and coordination on matters affecting the whole European continent, but they also want the flexibility that membership in the wider global network both demands and now allows.

Somehow the new EU Treaty — to be called the Treaty of Lisbon if it survives — fails to find this subtle balance. The outcome will probably be that it will fail, like the last one and the ensuing mess will then have to be painfully cleared up.

In the words of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Yet, in the hard real world, the need for a firm center remains, although its tasks are changing.

Europe’s statesmen and women have not yet found the words or wings to articulate this delicate equilibrium or show they understand this true and profound dilemma. The political leader who can do so will carry the people and win their trust.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords (www.lordhowell.com).