The Comit? des Sages: a wise idea?

Commentary

European leaders are set to examine Nikolas Sarkozy's proposal to launch a "Comit? des Sages" but the proposal has so far been received with scepticism by most stakeholders.

 

European leaders are set to examine a proposal by French President Sarkozy to launch a "Comité des Sages", a committee of the wise, to address the future of Europe. At a time when the EU is about to close more than ten years of institutional reforms and several years of Treaty negotiations, Sarkozy's proposal has been received with scepticism.

The concerns are manifold. First, several member states (especially those that failed to ratify the Constitutional Treaty) fear that the work of the Comité could negatively interfere with the successful ratification of the Lisbon Treaty - for example in Ireland, the UK or Denmark. Second, the clear link between Sarkozy's proposal and his negative stance on Turkey's EU membership is a cause for concern in enlargement-supporting member states.

Thus, as originally formulated, Sarkozy's proposal was likely to damage the twin motors of European integration: namely its deepening (the Lisbon Treaty) and its widening (Turkey and further enlargement). No wonder then that for the last couple of months, several member states have mobilized to dilute the proposal and reorient it into something entirely different.

The proposal has been coldly received by the EU institutions. EC President Jose Manuel Barroso warned against undermining "legally binding agreements pertaining to accession negotiations". EU Communication Commissioner Margaret Wallström criticized the elitist flavour of the Comité and called for civil society to be actively involved in the debate about the future of Europe. And the European Parliament also seemed uneasy with a committee that would be controlled by the Council, with little involvement by other institutions.

Yet, the most important reactions have stemmed from the "Turkish connection", which President Sarkozy explicitly admitted when presenting the initiative in August: "Pressing questions are being asked, especially in the wake of the latest enlargement: where are the Union's borders? Should the Union have borders? Are further enlargements compatible with continuing integration?"

This led Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn to warn against the committee providing an "excuse" for leaving Turkey out. "As to the famous idea of setting up a wise men's group to ponder the EU's future in 2020-2030... I am not sure if I am convinced of its added value; if it is really composed of wise men - and women, as it must - I am sure that they will see that enlargement is not the problem but rather a vital part of the solution to many problems that the EU will face in the coming decades".

As things stand now, the Comité des Sages is likely to be turned into a mere "High Level Reflection Group" dealing with a range of long-term issues, but specifically barred from meddling with institutional reforms, the EU's financial framework or existing policies. Most importantly, the Comité will have to present its findings in Spring 2010, well after the 2009 European elections, and not, as the French President had originally hoped, beforehand.

Thus, despite half-a-year of negotiations, what the Comité des Sages will actually deal with remains a mystery. In fact, the draft mandate is more explicit about what it should not do, than what it should do. The Group will not be allowed to deal with "policies, finances or institutions" (which leaves little else). But it will be allowed, "taking as the starting point the challenges set out in the Berlin Declaration of 25 March 2007", "to identify the key issues and developments which the Union is likely to face in the long-term and analyse how this might be addressed".

However, the Berlin Declaration was more a turf battle about the future of the Constitutional Treaty than a true founding policy statement (like the Laeken Declaration, which included 60 concrete questions to be addressed later on by the Convention). Therefore, since "concrete challenges" (defined as those the Lisbon Treaty will allow the EU to deal with) are also ruled out, the Committee's biggest challenge may actually be to find topics it can deal with.

The only concrete indication is the encouragement "to take into account likely developments beyond its borders and examine in particular how the stability of both the Union and the wider region might best be served in the longer term". This formulation means that the issue of Europe's borders and the EU's the relationship with Turkey is still lurking in the background

Should the Council finally endorse this thoroughly amended version of original proposals, the Comité could become an interesting forum for mobilizing public debate about the EU's future challenges. In fact, there is plenty of room for forward-thinking, as the EU will face a number of very important challenges by 2020 (economic, demographic, political or security). But this should not be taken for granted, and much will depend on who will be appointed to sit on the panel and how it will go about its business.

The Comité des Sages might thus end up being a good idea, but at this point it still seems too much of an uncomfortable partner brought about by President Sarkozy's unwillingness to consult with other partners before launching major initiatives about the future of Europe. Therefore, the wise side of the Comité des Sages proposal is still to be seen.

 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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