LONDON — Like a vampire rising from the grave, the issue of a new constitution for the European Union, which many people had assumed was dead and buried, has returned to haunt the corridors of power and government in the capitals of Europe.
Rejected last year by large majorities by the people of France and the Netherlands, the general consensus was that the whole constitution project was finished and could not be resurrected. But this overlooked the continuing desire of many European leaders to draw up a new rule book for the enlarged EU of 25 member states that has now come into being, with the prospect of membership increasing next year to 27 with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania — if all goes smoothly (which it may not) — and more still after that.
The core problem, which always causes so much grief when the issue is raised and has undermined all earlier attempts at constitution-making, is that there is bitter disagreement about the direction in which the proposed constitution should lead Europe. Is it toward a single state, with its own legal personality, its own foreign policy and all encased in its own body of law?
Or is it toward something much more modest and looser — namely a lightly regulated customs union that leaves as much as possible in the way of policy to the member states?
The Austrian government and their German neighbors strongly favor a new attempt at approving the original constitution document. The French government ministers seem to want to “cherry pick” the best bits out of the rejected constitution. So do the Italians. The British want to bypass the whole debate and just concentrate on practical reforms to EU institutions needed to make the enlarged system work.
Inside this debate is another one. This is the question of how many powers, or so-called competences, the central EU institutions should possess. And should they decide how to exercise these powers only through unanimity, meaning that one country can always block a measure or proposed initiative, or through qualified majority voting — a system of weighted votes in which one or more countries can always be outvoted? The rejected constitution sought to increase the areas considerably that would be decided by majority voting still further into very controversial areas, such as immigration and banking laws.
A government that willingly agrees to the latter procedure needs to be a strong one. This is because it has to tell its citizens that it has, in effect, surrendered sovereign control over certain areas in which it could be outvoted. For example, on matters such as labor laws, safety and health standards, transport regulations or industrial subsidies it may have to go to the people who elected it and say “Sorry, we have been outvoted in the Council of Ministers and we will have to accept a measure or regulation that we do not like, but this is all in the higher cause of European unity, so you will just have to live with it.”
A good example in Britain is the highly unpopular requirement that all goods must be sold in metric weights rather than imperial. This is now EU law that the courts are obliged to uphold.
Well over 70 percent of all new regulations and laws in member states now originate at the EU level, and some two-thirds of those are liable to be decided by a majority decision rather than by unanimity.
When governments throughout Europe were strong and there was a broadly popular sentiment in favor of the EU, the notion of limited EU sovereignty was an easy case to sell to voters. But today neither of these conditions apply. There are weak governments now in Italy, where the newly elected Romano Prodi hangs on by narrow margin; in Spain, where Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is under pressure; in France, where President Jacques Chirac now looks a loser; in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair is under intense pressure from a deeply divided party to remove himself; and even in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel presides over a fragile coalition.
To make matters much worse the EU is now highly unpopular. People just cannot see how it helps them in their everyday lives or how it is going to help businesses compete against rising Asian competition. The huge advantages of a single open market in Europe, including the freedom to cross frontiers, a single passport and common trading standards, have been eclipsed by concern about immigration, slow growth and just too many petty EU interferences. EU officials in Brussels seem to want to make a law or regulation for everything.
All this creates an atmosphere of crisis and disintegration that further weakens governments and further discredits the EU. So the downward spiral continues.
The only cheerful thought is this: that in the information age, markets are now so powerful, and power so dispersed, that broken-reed governments may not matter as much as they once did.
In other words, the underlying forces of enterprise and innovation, which have always been present in the European psyche, may flourish despite feeble administrations, weakened leaders and unsettled politics.
Of course this is not a message that politicians like to shout about. It is obviously painful for the political and governmental classes to admit that they are not as vital to a nation’s welfare as they claim. Yet it may be increasingly so, and it may be that, despite tottering governments in several of Europe’s biggest capitals, the European economies are about to make a comeback after years of slow growth and high unemployment.
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