"Fast-track" EU treaty change probably not enough

BRUSSELS Wed Dec 7, 2011 11:06am EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Proposals for fast-track changes to the EU treaty to shore up the euro zone may work for a few months, but a more fundamental overhaul is probably still necessary in the long run, the leading author of the EU's treaties said on Wednesday.

They are, in essence, clever enough to win time for the embattled currency bloc, Jean-Claude Piris, who drafted all the EU's major treaties of the past 20 years, told Reuters in an interview. But they are unlikely to convince everyone.

Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, presented a plan on Tuesday for narrow and rapid adjustments to the Lisbon treaty with the goal of forging deeper fiscal integration among the 17 euro zone countries.

The aim is to drive the currency union more quickly towards what he called a "new fiscal compact," a phrase also used by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi and which may allow the ECB to step up its role in fighting the debt crisis.

Van Rompuy's proposals will be discussed by EU leaders at a summit on Thursday and Friday, as the European Union takes another stab at trying to resolve two years of debt crisis turmoil that threatens to tear the currency union apart.

"I don't think Herman Van Rompuy is naive. He's very clever, and this is very clever," said Piris, a French constitutional lawyer whose accomplishments include the Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon agreements.

"The Van Rompuy paper will be a step, it will help to win time, two or three months, until March, maybe June. It depends on what the ECB does and if they intervene strongly," he said.

"I hope it will work, but I think it will not. As with the previous treaty, my fear is that it will not be enough."

Van Rompuy's proposal focuses on using a little-known element in the Lisbon treaty called protocol 12, which relates to euro zone countries that are in an "excessive deficit procedure" for having exceeded budget deficit limits.

By redrafting protocol 12 and strengthening other pieces of economic legislation, such as the EU's stability and growth pact, the aim is to impose much stricter rules on the euro zone when it comes to deficits, debt levels and working towards a balanced budget, with sanctions for transgressors.

While still a change to the EU treaty, lawyers say the adjustments can be made without having to secure parliamentary approval in all EU member states -- which could open an can of worms of unrelated demands.

It would only require consultation with the European Parliament, rather than full approval from that body, which could take time.

It remains to be seen at the summit whether Germany and France -- the political and economic motors of the euro zone -- would back such a technique for achieving closer fiscal integration, and whether the other 25 countries in the EU would also give their support to such a move.

"There is a fundamental problem, which is the democratic legitimacy," Piris said. "So far, this is the missing part."

ECB TO THE RESCUE?

Another concern is whether changes to protocol 12 would deliver sufficient "automaticity" when it comes to imposing sanctions on countries that breach the rules -- EU-speak for strong, immediate action.

If financial markets are not convinced that there is sufficient discipline being imposed, then the treaty changes may not end up achieving what they are aimed to do: restoring market confidence that the euro zone is stable.

"Protocol 12 is a bit thin... and the treaty reform perspective is still vague," Piris said. "It's too light, but what you are doing is just earning some time.

"You have to look at all the details. How automatic will the sanctions be? Who will trigger them? What role will the European Court of Justice play exactly?"

In the longer term, Piris, who sat on France's top court until 2004, said the EU would more than likely have to carry out a more extensive overhaul of the Lisbon treaty, which he acknowledged had always had shortcomings.

That may not come about for another year or more, but if the EU was to design a stable treaty structure for the future, it would be necessary.

"We knew when we negotiated Maastricht (in 1992) that it was not perfect. We knew since the beginning it was not enough. But the alternative was a major crisis, so we did our best to avoid that crisis," he said.

"That's the same today. So we hope (these proposed changes ) will be adopted, but it will be only one step."

(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Rex Merrifield and Jeremy Gaunt)

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