The Irish question the 21st century version of it, not the one that so vexed Victorian statesmen has been settled. Ireland’s Oct. 2 referendum vote in favor of the Lisbon Treaty and a new constitutional settlement for the European Union was decisive. It seems highly likely that Poland and the Czech Republic, the two holdouts in the process of ratifying the new treaty, will fall into line soon, however much it may pain Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the Saint-Just of Euroskepticism, to sign the document. By the beginning of next year, new institutional arrangements for the E.U. will be in place.
Then what First, perhaps, a pause for breath. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, there were 12 members of the European Community, as the E.U. was then known. Now there are 27. Inevitably, institutional reform of this metastasizing body has dominated debate for years, as its members have tried to figure how to make the damn thing work. The attention of political leaders has been directed inward, at just the time when tectonic movements outside Europe the revival of political Islam, the economic rise of Asia have both threatened and diminished Europe’s centrality in world affairs.
The E.U. will doubtless continue to grow. But any new members will join a club whose rules, pretty much, are fixed. The years of debilitating internal argument are drawing to an end. Europeans have their best opportunity for more than a decade to help shape international policy on pressing global issues.
On climate change and on the new architecture of the international financial system, the E.U. is already doing that. On questions of security, like the war in Afghanistan and the risk that the Horn of Africa will become a new center of global terrorism, it’s not quite there. Much is going to depend on personnel. If the new President of the E.U. is a person of international stature , able to project Europe’s view while convincing the smaller members of the union that their voices count, then Europe is going to be a bigger player internationally. In time, this could be to the enormous advantage of the U.S., which has neither the will nor the wallet to tackle every crisis on its own, and would love the wholehearted partnership of an engaged, rich, democratic community on the eastern shore of the Atlantic.
The caveat, of course talk about tiresome is the internal state of British politics. Britain must have an election by next May; it is highly likely that it will be won by a Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, in which Euroskepticism seems as firmly rooted as it was when Margaret Thatcher gave her famous speech in Bruges 21 years ago. Cameron, who has taken his party out of the center-right European parliamentary grouping, annoying German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has promised a referendum on Lisbon if the treaty is not ratified by all E.U. members before the election. It probably will be; but even if Cameron resists pressure from his party to hold a vote, come what may, he is likely to try and renegotiate parts of the treaty, for example on justice and social policy, to give Britain more “opt-outs.”
We will leave it to another day to consider whether such an exercise would be a sensible way for a new Prime Minister with ambitious goals to spend his time. The bigger question is what Cameron thinks Britain gains from being such a pain to its European colleagues. One consequence is already plain: as TIME noted last week, in Paris and Berlin there is new energy behind Franco-German cooperation, and you can bet your bottom dollar that is partly because Merkel and Sarkozy have taken a look at Cameron, remembered the havoc Thatcher caused in the 1980s and thought, “Uh-oh. Is that a handbag he’s carrying”
Even more importantly, a British disengagement from E.U. decision-making would aggravate the U.S. Washington wants Britain to be central to European policy, because it believes with some reason that London’s view on international security and economic issues tends to be closer to its own than that of other European powers.
Conservative politicians have a hard time believing this. I’ve seen it too often. They fly to Washington. They give speeches in congenial think tanks and have dinners with like-minded friends. They return to London convinced the U.S. would welcome a Britain that spoke independently of the E.U. and other powers within it. I may not have learned much from watching Anglo-American relations for 25 years, but I do know this: whatever party is in power in the U.S., that is a delusion. Cameron can discover that now, and commit himself to working with others in the E.U. and with its American allies to build a better world; or he can discover it later. But discover it he will.
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