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Ausgabe 26/2008

Putting One Over on Europe: How EU Leaders Are Trying to Rescue the Lisbon Treaty

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Last week's summit in Brussels failed to resolve the EU crisis caused by the Irish "no" to the Lisbon Treaty. But Europe's politicians are determined to avoid asking the people their opinion. And they are right to do so.

Would you buy a used treaty from these people?
REUTERS

Would you buy a used treaty from these people?

This must be the biggest collection of scoundrels in the world. There are 27 of them. No, more: It's not just the heads of state and government who are here, but also the foreign ministers. Sitting there at their enormous table, they seem to be chatting amiably, but it's far less innocent than that. They're plotting something, once again, searching for a way to put one over -- and a really big one, this time -- on the people they represent. They've been working on it for a long time, picking up where their predecessors left off. Again and again, they trick their populations into accepting the European Union.

It's been going on for 50 years: politicians making policy against the people. The only time anyone ever notices is when the people -- one people, in this case -- are asked for their opinion. It happened in Ireland recently, when the Irish made it clear that they refuse to accept the politics of scoundrels. They voted against the Lisbon Treaty, and in doing so they plunged the EU into yet another of its many crises.

It was the big topic at the meeting of the European Council last Thursday and Friday, when the heads of state and government got together, hoping to devise a way out of their current impasse, a way that would enable them to continue making policy against the people without the people noticing what they are up to.

What they were in fact discussing was a handful of tricks, tricks involving lawyers, tricks that would enable them to palm the Lisbon Treaty off on the Irish after all.

Of course, they would never admit it. It sounds awful, and it certainly doesn't sound democratic. But what if these smooth-operating politicians, and not the general public with their supposed wisdom, were right after all?

For now, it looks as though Brussels has no choice but to agree with the Irish. It is 4:20 p.m. on Thursday, and the current president of the European Council, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, and his State Secretary for European Affairs Janez Lenarcic, are waiting to meet with their colleagues. They wait and wait, but no one shows up. After a while, the prime minister and his state secretary begin fidgeting awkwardly. Aren't Europe's politicians interested in Europe's future any more, they wonder?

One man, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, eventually appears, and soon the rest trickle in, one by one. It takes a full hour before this contingent of European politicians has managed to shake hands. By the time they have all flooded into the conference room, the scene resembles a "Where's Waldo?" of European politics, a bustling, confusing mass of politicians and their aides.

The doors close. Everyone knows that what is about to happen -- supposedly a "debate" -- is nothing but a series of casual two-and-a-half-minute speeches at the microphone. Everyone has to step up and put forward the position of his or her respective country.

And this is something we are supposed to applaud? Something we should trust and support?

Paradoxically enough, the Lisbon Treaty would in fact make European structures more efficient and democratic. It would make the position of council president last for two-and-a-half years. It would allow the European Commission to shrink, and it would give more rights to the representatives of individual countries and the European Parliament. The Irish have rejected a treaty that would have made Europe a slightly better place. And because a unanimous "yes" vote is required to make the treaty a reality, the Irish vote stands in the way of progress for all.

Until now, the EU has often behaved like a boa constrictor in the process of digesting a calf -- shapeless and motionless, but threatening nonetheless. Everything takes eons. It has been tweaking its own structures for seven years now. The Turks have been waiting to get in for at least two decades. Symbolically enough, waiting is the principal pastime for all observers at the Brussels summit -- waiting for a press conference, waiting for a briefing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, waiting for the conference to end.

Europe, where everything takes longer than expected, has become too cumbersome for every schedule. And in Brussels, the metaphorical stomach of the snake, the place where its prey is leisurely digested, the slow passage of time is nothing short of excruciating.

The worst of it is that often the wait isn't even worth it. Europe, unlike a nation, provides no moments of beauty or enthusiasm. National politics offers little reason to rejoice, but at least nations experience the occasional glimmers of reconciliation, rare hours when they become what the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk once called communities of excitement.

Last Thursday, Germany was the lucky beneficiary of just such a moment of pure elation, when its national team was pitted against Portugal in the quarter-final of the European Championship soccer tournament. Six minutes before the match was due to end, Chancellor Merkel left a dinner she was attending with other European leaders to watch it on television, and she even remained glued to the TV for a full three minutes after the final whistle to savor Germany's victory. Then she returned to her dinner to discuss Ireland over dessert.

It was the kind of moment -- when most Germans are thrilled to be Germans -- that the European Union in its current form cannot have. The EU is nothing without politics. It would be a different story if Europe had a national football team, for example -- with a lineup that included Ronaldo, Ballack and Sneijder -- and it happened to trounce China 5:0. But that too is impossible, because the key ingredient, shared emotion, is missing. Emotions stem from a common history, and it has only been 60 years since Europe's history ceased to be a history of conflicts ending in major wars.

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© DER SPIEGEL 26/2008
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