LONDON — Presidents and constitutions are the subjects that excite enthusiasts for European integration at the moment, while ordinary citizens of Europe look on a little uneasily. The enthusiasts are making no secret of their earnest desire to “take Europe forward,” as they put it, by creating the post of president of the European Union, who will sit at the apex of a united Europe, bolstered by a constitution written somewhat along American lines. This is seen as the next great integrating project after the euro.
It is also argued that this will give Europe a single, clear voice on the world stage and clarify the interminable arguments as to the relative powers and responsibilities of EU institutions and its nation states. Again, an analogy is frequently made with the American battle between federal power and states’ rights — a battle that blew up into a bloody civil war in the 19th century and continues today, in less violent form, in unending legal arguments in the American courts.
These ideas are being vigorously developed in the current Convention on the Future of Europe — a forum sitting at The Hague under the chairmanship of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The forum is charged with thinking out how the EU should adapt not only to the modern world generally but also to the imminent inclusion of nine or 10 new member states, mostly from central and eastern Europe.
Various EU institutions have been lobbying the Convention vigorously to explain why they should have more powers under the new dispensation. The European Commission is quite sure it should be given the power to shape Europe’s foreign policy (if it can establish what that is). It also believes that the taxation and budgetary policies of all member states would be far better if centralized in the hands of the Commission. This, it argues, would be a much better way of running the wobbly euro-zone.
The Commission already has its own outspoken president, the genial Italian professor Romano Prodi. Unsurprisingly, it dislikes intensely the prospect of another president sitting at the Council of Ministers, and dislikes even more the thought of both presidencies being merged into one superpost.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament also demands more powers. It also reaches into foreign and security policy, claiming to be the voice of democracy in these lofty areas.
Finally, those who prefer that the Brussels Commission be kept well down and the Council of Ministers, with its own powerful secretariat, raised up find that they have a friend in d’Estaing, who reflects traditional French hostility both to an overly mighty Commission and an all-powerful Parliament.
All, however, seem agreed that Europe should be endowed with massive new documentation in the form of a constitution, a legal personality, a revised and consolidated treaty and a detailed charter of legal rights. Lawyers and judges are already looking well pleased at the prospect.
The whole scene resembles one of those great Diets of medieval Europe where cardinals and princes, jurists and learned scholars wrestled with fine points of doctrine to determine who held power, who governed and who was subservient to whom. What the peoples of Europe felt about these issues did not really matter in those days, and they were not consulted.
Is it much different today? The media give modest coverage to what is being discussed at the European Convention, but the majority of the populace in most member states have not the faintest idea what is being decided in their name. Their democratic and elected assemblies going back, in some cases, many hundreds of years — such as the Parliament at Westminster — do not seem to have more than a limited say in the proceedings. The word “accountability,” as applied to all the EU-inspired laws and decisions increasingly governing European lives, does not appear to feature in the discussion.
Above all, Convention leaders do not seem very concerned about the traditional priority of all liberal democracies — that power should be dispersed and never permitted to be concentrated in too few hands, and that its use and abuse should always be constrained by the most careful checks and balances.
In other words, democracy, accountability and grass-roots influence are the junior guests at this feast of ideas and proposals about Europe’s future government and structure. This is strange, since the European nations used to be the leaders in the development of representative democracy, especially Britain. British thinkers’ concern with protecting the liberty of subjects under the law inspired models of governance that, in turn, gave birth to new constitutions around the world, notably the American one.
Central to the American constitutional vision were the concepts of government for the people and by the people, and the absolute belief in the separation of powers. After the experience of being ruled from afar by English kings, they were determined to reject autocracy forever.
The great danger now in Europe is that, as the central EU institutions tussle for power among themselves and as new members knock at the door, these fundamental issues will be neglected, and the people at the grass roots, their national parliaments and their nationhoods will be overlooked.
That would give birth not to a democratic Europe but to a bureaucratic Europe, and to a remote Union, run for elites and by elites. It would be, in the words of the great 18th-century French philosopher Montesquieu, “government by strangers.”
Such governments do not inspire trust and do not last. The reformers at the European Convention will have to try far harder to rediscover their democratic roots, deep within the member states, if the Union is to flourish.
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