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Giles Merritt: New Treaty leaves 'a lot of soft focus'

(published in Ouest-France on December 1)
Giles Merritt is one of the best connoisseurs of European power. British, former correspondent of the Financial Times, he is now secretary general
Friends of Europe, one of the most prominent think tanks (research circles) in Brussels.

The Treaty of Lisbon creates a permanent post of President for the European Council, entrusted for 2 and a half years to the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman Van Rompuy.
How do you see its role?

He will be more of a chairman than a President - in the French sense of the term -, a conciliator rather than a star. His role will be to be the architect of consensus, of a Europe that speaks with one voice. What is missing today. There are many subjects where Europeans have different opinions: the environment, the regulation of the financial markets, taxation, the Euro… From this point of view, Herman Van Rompuy is the man for the job. He has character and quite an amazing experience in Belgium. He has "bread in the planks".

The presidency of the Councils of Ministers continues to rotate?

Yes. The Treaty of Lisbon provided that the chairmanship of the meetings of Heads of Government and State would be permanent. But, except for Foreign Affairs, the presidency of the councils of ministers continues to change every six months. Thus, after Sweden today, Spain takes over the presidency in January. Then it will be Belgium, in the second
semester of 2010. Then, I think, this will be the real test of the Lisbon Treaty. How will the permanent presidency work with the rotating presidencies? Belgians will be able to have a
very European idea to solve the question.

Another important figure, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, entrusted to a Briton, Catherine Ashton. A revolution ?

No. I don't think we should hope for big change quickly. Catherine Ashton's first and most difficult task will be to set up the European External Action Service. What I rather call the “European diplomatic service” is more understandable. It is important that in London and Paris, Foreign Office like Quai d'Orsay, participate wholeheartedly in the new service, send their best elements to Brussels. If they don't get involved, it's dead in advance. The European Commission does not have the necessary expertise to set up real embassies.

With the Treaty of Lisbon, national parliaments will also have their say. What do you think ?

I see it a bit with a British eye (smile). When I see Westminster (the House of Commons), and British MPs who know nothing about what is happening in Brussels, I am rather skeptical about this role of national parliaments. There is still a lot of work to be done for national parliaments to really play an important role.

Where will the real power be then?

That's a very good question. You know, as often at European level, there is a certain artistic vagueness. In my mind, it's positive. We are far from the “Brussels imposes”, denounced by some. This artistic vagueness makes it possible to leave room for discussion, for negotiation, to allow the various interlocutors to be listened to. It is not direct democracy. It is a form of political sensitivity that balances the system of decisions. What the Americans call check and balance (limitation of powers).

Isn't that a bit undemocratic?

No. It is a form of democracy. This may not be quite the French republican or German federal model. It is a sui generis model. The search for a consensus is not necessarily anti-democratic. On the contrary…

Interview by Nicolas GROS-VERHEYDE

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).