By Luke Baker ,Reuters
BRUSSELS — If there are two words causing quiet alarm across the European Union right now — beyond the turmoil already convulsing the countries that share the euro — they are “treaty change.” They may not carry the same drama as “bond market mayhem,” but the very idea of altering the fundamental laws underpinning the European Union so soon after they were agreed runs the risk of shaking the 50-year-old European project to its core and may end up exacerbating the sovereign debt crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the most forthright of Europe’s leaders in calling for changes to the Lisbon Treaty, arguing that amendments are necessary if there is to be more rapid integration and greater stability in the eurozone. The changes she is seeking include much stricter sanctions on countries that miss budget deficit targets. “It is time for a breakthrough to a new Europe,” she said in Berlin last week, emphasizing that the survival of the EU depended on being able to amend its treaty, even though it took eight years to negotiate and came into force only two years ago. “A community that says, regardless of what happens in the rest of the world, that it can never again change its ground rules, that community simply can’t survive. I’m convinced of this.”
As has often been the case during the crisis, France has supported Germany, saying treaty change is necessary, although Paris has hinted at much deeper and more fundamental changes than Berlin wants. The European Commission, the EU’s executive, is behind the need for limited changes, although it has caveats too. “Any revision of the treaty is for deeper integration of the euro area but also for a stronger European Union,” Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament on Wednesday, a bid to keep the process inclusive of all 27 countries in the EU, not just the 17 in the eurozone. “But let’s not fool ourselves. Treaty change takes time and should not be seen as the immediate solution for the current crisis,” he said. Others are even more cautious, including Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council and the man responsible for chairing summits of EU heads of state or government. Van Rompuy’s concern is that opening the treaty to changes without a very precise idea of why and to what extent runs the risk of everything in the document suddenly being up for renegotiation — not unlike pulling a single thread in a knitted sweater only to see the entire piece of clothing unravel. In discussions he will have with leaders over the coming month, Van Rompuy will try to define what changes might be needed and only then look at what the legal necessities are. His aim is to deliver an interim report before a summit on Dec. 9, and a final assessment in March or possibly June next year, a much later deadline than previously envisaged. “We should examine the goals, and only afterwards the legal instruments to get there, including limited treaty changes, should these prove necessary,” he told the European Parliament on Wednesday using particularly nuanced language. “A lot can be done within the (current) treaties,” he said, underlining his reluctance for a broad re-opening of the text, before reminding everyone of the biggest hurdle to a successful amendment, and the issue that makes most EU leaders shudder: “For treaty changes, a unanimous ratification is needed by every single member state,” he said.