The oddly plural phrase “European Communities” is not, as one might think, a reference to the 27 member states of the European Union, but to an anachronistic constitutional anomaly.
Two Treaties of Rome were signed in March 1957. Both came into force on 1 January 1958.
One was the widely known European Economic Community Treaty, since updated numerous times in Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht and elsewhere. The other established the European Atomic Energy Community, better known as Euratom.
The Merger Treaty signed in Brussels in April 1965 brought the EEC, the now defunct European Coal and Steel Community and Euratom together under a common administration across three European communities. All member states of the European Union are parties to Euratom, but formally the affiliations are separate and Euratom still retains its own legal personality.
When drafting Europe’s new Constitution in 2003, Europe’s reformers decided to leave Euratom in its 1957 state. This decision persisted as the Constitution morphed into the Lisbon Treaty. Even if eventually accepted by all member states, Lisbon will not extend to fixing the Euratom anomaly.
Euratom’s work includes the noncontroversial tasks of improving nuclear safety and maintaining safeguards against proliferation as well as roles in European nuclear fuel supply and project finance. Euratom is also responsible for much excellent research. It maintains its own research capacity in the Joint Research Centre, it underpins European fusion research and conducts research in those aspects of nuclear fission able to secure unanimous member state support. The rest of EU energy research requires no such unanimity.
Nuclear energy research merely provides options for the future, imposing no obligations to deploy nuclear power. Lisbon reinforces each member states’ sovereign right to choose its own energy mix. Euratom reform should not change that.
Historically Euratom’s unusual status has been of interest to two types of people: those like myself with an interest in science and technology policy; and antinuclear campaigners who find in Euratom’s anachronisms evidence on which to build their opposition to nuclear power. One central concern is Euratom’s democratic deficit. The Euratom Treaty requires no periodic renewal. The European Parliament has almost no role in the Euratom programme. The Parliament cannot steer the direction of the research. It can merely approve or disapprove the top level budget.
Why does the Euratom Treaty remain in this ossified state? The enthusiasm that created Euratom has mostly dissipated. In 1957 nuclear power was a modern, noncontroversial path to a prosperous future. Thereafter the Cold War intensified and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster revealed nuclear power’s dark side. Opinions began to diverge, especially between France and Germany, two of Euratom’s original godparents.
The loudest calls for reform have come from antinuclear campaign groups, but the obstacles to such reform have come neither from the nuclear research community nor the Euratom secretariat. Euratom reform requires unanimity among the member states.
Some have called for reform; others have not accepted their arguments. The time is approaching when those who wish to expand and improve EU nuclear activities should embrace Euratom reform. The challenges of climate change and energy security are simply too pressing for artificial constitutional barriers to stand in the way of sensible European decision making. Nuclear power research deserves to be considered on its merits in competition with other ideas.
One concern is that, if the Parliament were to have power over the Euratom research programme, they would immediately close it down in an attempt to reflect perceived public opinion. Such fears are probably misplaced. In the current context, surely no major energy policy steps would be taken so impulsively.
To minimise political risks, any plan to reform Euratom might be phased in slowly. Some have suggested that the process should start with a Euratom review conference. It would also seem wise to hear the opinion of the European electorate in an all union parliamentary election. The next such election is scheduled for 2014.
Meanwhile, we can take comfort from the fact that the Lisbon Treaty is no longer a complete European constitution. There will surely be numerous opportunities for further EU constitutional revision and there is no shortage of fine European cities after which to name treaties. Perhaps it is time to put Euratom on the agenda.
William J. Nuttall, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge
PS. This article was originally published in Research Europe, Issue 284, 1 October 2009. Reproduced here with permission.