Why the New Constitution May Split Europe: As Ten Nations Begin to Prepare for Referenda on the New European Constitution, the Future of the Newly Enlarged European Union Hangs in the Balance. after the Voting, Europe May Have to Reorganise

Article excerpt

If only they had not called it a constitution, there would not have been such a problem.


In 2001, with the enlargement of the European Union to 25 member states only a few years away, Europe's political leaders decided at the EU summit in Laaken, Belgium, to initiate a process that eventually led to the establishment of the Constitutional Convention. The superficial reason was to amend the Treaty of Nice--which is regarded as seriously deficient because its voting procedures are guaranteed to produce gridlock in decision-making in an enlarged Europe.

A second reason was the wish to consolidate the EU's highly complex web of treaties and amendments into a well-written simple-to-understand document. But there was a lot more to it. The conventionels, as the members of the convention came to be known, also aimed to lay the groundwork for a much more ambitious draft, one that would officially recognise the EU--not merely as a collection of nations, but as a political entity sui generis--by giving the EU its own legal personality.

In reality, what the convention produced was another treaty, rather than a proper constitution. Foreign policy remains subject to the national veto, and there have been virtually no changes to the EU's framework for economic policy. The influence of the European Parliament has been strengthened in some areas, but the present balance of power, heavily tilted in favour of the Council of Ministers, remains unchanged.

If you are looking for a constitution for a future United States of Europe, this is not it. Or at least, it does not have some of the most important characteristics of a constitution. In particular it does not define the EU as a state. Legal scholars have argued that the various EU treaties have some characteristics of a constitution without being constitutions in themselves. In that sense, this is a European treaty in the old tradition. The main difference is that this one is consolidated, shorter and better written, with amended voting procedures and an extensive section on human and civil rights, known as the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This constitution is being criticised by Euro-sceptics and Euro-enthusiasts alike. The sceptics view it as yet another step in the direction of a federal Europe, while the enthusiasts believe that this constitution contains so many compromises that it may soon need to be revised again. French socialists, including Laurent Fabius, the former French Socialist prime minister and finance minister, rejects the constitution on the grounds that it paves the way for a libertarian anti-socialist Europe. Many British business leaders reject it for the opposite reason: that the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and in particular its section on social rights, would render the EU uncompetitive in the long run. The constitution has polarised the debate on Europe further, but not in the sense that some love it and others hate it, but in the sense that people hate it for different reasons. Those who support it, do so without much enthusiasm.

The constitution needs to be ratified in all 25 member states before it can take effect. Of those 25 member states, 10 have agreed to hold referenda. Legally, the constitution cannot come into effect if any one member state, however small, decides not to ratify it.

But this clear legal argument does not fully capture the political dynamics of a 'no' vote. That would depend on how many countries vote no, but also on which countries vote no. That fact that ten governments have already announced that they will hold a referendum makes a 'no' vote more likely because referenda are notoriously volatile. In the past, the Danes have voted against the Maastricht Treaty, the Swedes voted against the membership of the euro, and the Irish voted against the adoption of the Treaty of Nice. In the case of the Maastricht and Nice treaties, the Danes and the Irish voted a second time round, and in both cases they voted yes. …