The big news in Europe this week is the final ratification of the Lisbon treaty, which provides a new constitutional structure for the European Union. The treaty passed its final hurdle on Tuesday with the signature of Czech president Vaclav Klaus, after the Czech constitutional court had ruled that it was compatible with the country’s constitution.
The treaty will make the EU a bit more like a political actor in its own right: it will have its own president and foreign minister, more decisions will be made by majority vote instead of consensus among the member governments, and European MPs will have more power to supervise the EU’s activities.
How much practical importance any of this will have will only become clear after the treaty has been operating for a while. But some of the political implications of the treaty and its ratification are already clear.
The most striking thing is the absence from the political mainstream on the continent of what we know as euroscepticism. In America, and among circles in Australia that take their cues from the American right, the EU is still a controversial project — it is variously regarded as threatening, impractical, or even a socialist plot. But on the continent, while there is haggling about the details, the basic idea of building European institutions is not seriously disputed.
Klaus is the exception that proves the rule: his euroscepticism put him so far outside the political ballpark that he was obliged to sign the treaty despite his strong personal opposition.
This is part of a more general political difference. The centre-right in Europe has other characteristic positions: it supports action on climate change, it favors engagement with the Arab world, and it broadly accepts the enlightenment consensus against torture, capital punishment and religious fundamentalism. In the US, and increasingly in Australia, the centre-right (if indeed it still deserves the name) has, by contrast, taken stances on these issues that arouse puzzled disbelief in Europe.
(Despite our bad habit of relating all left-right differences to economics, economic policy has not been a major point of contrast — indeed, France and Germany have been more restrained in their stimulus spending than the US and Australia, with no obvious differences in effect.)
The UK, as usual, is the country caught in the middle: its conservative party is substantially eurosceptic, and is influenced by American ideas in some other areas. But Britain’s independence from Europe is largely an illusion — it has gone too far with the EU project to turn back now — and David Cameron’s pandering to his anti-European wing fails to hide the fact that he is much closer to his continental counterparts such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy than he is to the American “teabaggers” and their mad followers in Australia.
It’s hard to say why this has happened: why does Europe produce conservative politicians with mainstream views and a correspondingly broad appeal that ours seem to lack? Unfortunately, the difference could well become self-perpetuating, since one of the trademarks of recent US and Australian conservatives is their insularity and resistance to international comparisons.
That means they’re likely to ignore Europe’s lessons just when they need them most.