After Lisbon, a coalition of the willing

Just divorced! (picture Jennifer Pahlka)

Thoughts this summer are turning to how to continue with the Lisbon treaty or, alternatively, how to continue without it. A reader of this blog suggests that the proposal for a coalition of the willing, as described by Christoph Leitl here, is worth considering.

He starts from the assumption that the Lisbon treaty will go not further. He is probably right, but actually it does not matter. Both the Lisbon treaty and its predecessor, Nice, contain provisions whereby groups of member states can pursue joint initiatives within the framework of the EU institutions without requiring the involvement of all 27. Lisbon would make this prospect slightly more likely, because the minimum nine member states required would be able to adopt QMV among themselves even if the Council works by unanimity.

But what will really make the difference is the realisation – because each member state has its own interests and outlook – that making all future progress in the EU conditional on unanimity will rule out any future progress. The current obstacle is political, not institutional, whichever treaty we are thinking about.

As an example, the European Commission floated a proposal for some common rules on divorce settlements. Something like 20 per cent of all divorces within the EU involve married partners from different member states. At present, because different countries can have very different rules on how to divide up assets in the event of a divorce – England favours the wife much more than Sweden does, for example – the choice of member state in which the divorce should take place can become a significant legal decision in its own right. The Commission suggested a set of rules by which the choice of jurisdiction should be made.

Such legislation would require unanimous agreement, which was not forthcoming for the Commission proposal. Some member states, reacting to the setback, have asked the Commission to investigate the idea of a core group instead. (Read about it here.) Those countries that wish to stay out may do so, but those countries that wish to go ahead may do so too. There is no harm done to either group by this division, so there is no reason for anyone to object.

It is ironic, perhaps, that the next step in the direction of European unity is based on a new method for breaking things apart. But I prefer to think that this is another way in which European cooperation can solve cross-border problems in the interests of the citizen.

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