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When is a constitution not a constitution? When it is the European Union’s “reform treaty.” EU leaders agreed last month on a new document to guide the EU and — hopefully — end the paralysis that has blocked progress toward a genuine community among the 27 member states. While the leaders applauded their achievement, critics rightfully questioned just what had been agreed and the cost of consensus.

The dream of creating a cohesive bloc that can articulate and defend its interests obligated EU members to reform its institutions and processes. The EU’s steady expansion from 15 states to 27 has compounded the requirement for change. A first attempt began four years ago with the creation of a committee to develop a constitution, which was revealed two years later. That effort failed: When put before member publics, the constitution was rejected by two EU founding states, the Netherlands and France.

The constitution itself was an unwieldy document of 448 clauses, protocols and annexes that failed to capture the spirit and the dream of union. Defeat, however, reflected not the document itself but the distance most Europeans felt from the EU. Most significantly, there was little indication that Europeans were prepared to sacrifice yet more national sovereignty to a regional institution from which they felt increasingly estranged.

While the constitution may have been flawed, the problem it was designed to solve was getting worse. For two more years, European leaders grappled with reform, a process that yielded results last month. Under the stewardship of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, chair of the rotating EU presidency, a hard-fought compromise was agreed at 4:30 in the morning on the third day of the meeting.

The new “treaty” — the refusal to call it a constitution is one sign of the deep ambivalence that still surrounds the project and the lengths to which EU members will go to cloak their actions in benign rhetoric — creates a full-time EU president, a foreign affairs official with more power, and, most significantly, a new voting system. This most recent deal only tackled the key concerns. Most details have yet to be finalized; that is expected by year’s end. Afterward, it must again be ratified by member countries. If all goes on schedule, the treaty is expected to come into force in 2009.

The new document strips away much of the symbolism of the old constitution — the EU anthem, for example, has been eliminated. Similarly, the foreign affairs official is pointedly not called a “foreign minister.” Despite these changes, supporters claim that 90 percent of the original treaty survived. More significantly, as Mr. Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president explained, agreement on a document has lifted doubts about the EU’s ability to act.

Critics complain that some of the changes are not benign. At the urgings of new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the new document no longer identifies “free and undistorted competition” as an EU objective. Some economic reformers worry that this will undermine Europe’s commitment to competition and make it harder to fight mercantilist programs by national governments; others counter that there are other references that will support attempts to fight monopolies.

Others worry that the battle to win agreement will leave lasting scars. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi acknowledged that the treaty “furnishes Europe with the instruments that until now were missing. But there is no longer the shared spirit for going ahead.” Some point to Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who ensured the treaty did not cross the four “red lines” that he set to protect his country’s interests, but those objections are long-standing.

The most damaging fight was between Poland and Germany. Warsaw has complained about voting rights, arguing Berlin is unfairly advantaged by the new formula, which uses population size as a factor. Polish President Lech Kaczynski claimed that his country would be much larger if it had not been for World War II. His stubborn determination to challenge the consensus could hurt Poland in future budget discussions; his readiness to play the history card may seriously damage relations with Germany.

History’s judgment will rest on the voting public’s evaluation of the treaty. If the new treaty passes, then the sacrifices and fudges will have been worth the trouble. The core question is whether the Europeans feel the treaty — and the EU — serve their interests. The constitution failed because Europeans did not feel it was their own document; ultimately, it was a politicians’ accord and not one ordinary citizens felt part of. The new treaty will suffer the same fate if that democratic deficit is not remedied.

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