Just as Kevin Rudd has raised the prospect of a new regional institution which spans the entire Asia Pacific region by 2020, the immediate future of the European Union is in the balance. A referendum in Ireland today on the acceptance or otherwise of the Lisbon Treaty on EU reform will decide the immediate collective future of the 27 states of the EU.
Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia had all already ratified the Treaty before this week and were joined by Finland and Estonia on Wednesday. Of the remaining states of the EU that are yet to decide on the Lisbon agreement, Ireland is currently the only nation holding a referendum.
All of Europe is watching Ireland. If the Irish vote against change, then the Lisbon reform package is sunk, regardless of the views of the other 500 million or so voters within the EU. Controversially, current European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso has claimed that there is "no Plan B" if Ireland’s voters throw out the reform treaty.
The Lisbon Treaty is itself already a substitute for the defunct European Union Constitution proposal, which was derailed by French and Dutch voters in a referendum process back in 2005. As the BBC’s analysis points out, the Treaty contains many of the same changes the Constitution attempted to introduce. These proposals include the creation of an EU president and foreign minister, reforms to the voting system, shifts in the power and role of various European institutions and a reduction in the number of commissioners. But unlike the rejected Constitution, EU voters anywhere except Ireland are not getting a say on whether the Lisbon Treaty is adopted – other countries have chosen to ratify it by parliamentary vote.
The issue is particularly politically hot for Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK, whose government is not currently planning to hold a referendum. The last thing Brown needs is yet another politically divisive issue as he counts down to the next general election in 2010. Yet the most recent BBC poll suggested that 64 per cent of respondents believe that there should be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the United Kingdom too.
The twists of the EU reform process are a salutary reminder of the intricacies involved in any super-multilateral process, including Rudd’s 2020 vision for the Asia Pacific.
As the Australian PM himself acknowledges, he is thinking very big indeed. The establishment of a regional institution, as Rudd has envisioned, which spans the entire Asia Pacific region including Australia, the USA, Japan, China, India and Indonesia, engaged "in the full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security", is a massively ambitious undertaking.
Ultimately, the challenge in both Europe and the Asia Pacific comes down to the same dilemma. Global and regional issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, poverty and environmental degradation can only be solved through international institutions. Yet in their legitimacy and functionality, international bodies are a very mixed bag. As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins pointed out recently, "international" is no longer synonymous with progressive.
The vote in Ireland today and the future of Rudd’s 2020 Asia Pacific Community are signs of the same predicament. We can’t survive without international or multilateral institutions, but establishing and getting them right is a complex business involving the most fundamental questions of the relationship between citizens and their governments.
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