EU 'needs new fundamental law' - MEP Verhofstadt

Guy Verhofstadt is a former prime minister of Belgium.

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A new round of EU treaty change and referendums will be needed in 2015 after next year's European elections, says one of the bloc's top politicians.

The liberal leader in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, called for a "new fundamental law for the EU" to give the bloc long-term cohesion.

The former Belgian prime minister was speaking at a high-profile debate in London on the EU's future.

EU politicians negotiated for eight years to seal the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

The EU's struggle to co-ordinate policy in the euro crisis has fuelled calls for a much closer political union, with a eurozone "government" and separate eurozone budget.

"There's a failure in the way we govern Europe - it's inter-governmental... we need a far more integrated Europe," said Mr Verhofstadt.

Formal talks on revising the EU treaties should start in early 2015, he said, as "it's necessary to deal with the problems - not just economic, but also defence".

Reshaping Europe

But putting such reforms to popular votes is fraught with risk for EU politicians, amid growing Euroscepticism in many EU countries.

Treaty changes have to be agreed unanimously by the 27 - soon to be 28 - member states.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged that treaty changes will probably be necessary to ensure long-term stability in the eurozone.

In the EU's planned banking union the joint supervision body will be set up without treaty change. But a deposit guarantee scheme and joint resolution scheme for problem banks require bigger transfers of sovereignty - and that is likely to mean treaty change.

Prof Anand Menon, an EU politics specialist at King's College London, said French President Francois Hollande would be among those most reluctant to hold a new referendum on the EU. Mr Hollande's opinion poll ratings are currently at a historic low for a French president.

But in the UK an in/out referendum on continued EU membership, as proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron, has become unavoidable, Prof Menon said.

Mr Cameron says it will be held by the end of 2017 - after renegotiating membership terms with the EU - if the Conservatives win the UK election in 2015.

Many critics of the EU point to its troubled history of referendums, arguing that a Brussels elite has repeatedly pushed through far-reaching treaty changes despite "no" votes in some countries.

Before the Lisbon Treaty's final adoption its predecessor - the ill-fated EU constitution - was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands.

The Republic of Ireland famously voted "no" to the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, but 16 months later voted "yes" after the EU agreed to include Irish "safeguards".

Reaching out to voters

Next year's European elections are a vital opportunity to re-engage voters with the EU, said Prof Simon Hix, a European elections expert at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Conservative MEP Martin Callanan said the EU "has no demos", or body of opinion behind it. "Democracy means an affinity with institutions, a common space, but that doesn't exist," he said.

Turnout has fallen each time since the first European Parliament elections - and it slumped to 43% in 2009. Across the EU the elections have tended to focus on national - rather than pan-European - issues. In many cases there have been big protest votes against incumbent governments.

After next year's elections "as much as a quarter or third of MEPs could be Eurosceptic," said Prof Hix.

But for the first time the main political blocs in the parliament will field candidates for the powerful post of European Commission president.

"That will change the debate about Europe - what kind of Europe do we want?" said Prof Hix, adding that national parties would have to express their views about the rival candidates.

Mr Verhofstadt agreed that "more than in the past the elections will turn on European issues - up until now they have been national".

The debate in Westminster was co-hosted by the European Parliament office in the UK and the lobby group Business for New Europe.

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