A little bit of editing—or will it end up in the bin?
Oct 2nd 2003 | BERLIN, BRUSSELS AND PARIS
From The Economist print edition
Governments are likely to make only small changes to the draft of a new constitution for the European Union—but those may confuse matters more
IN FIVE months or so, the European Union will probably have a new constitution, agreed upon, with varying degrees of grumpiness and glee, by all 25 countries due to be members of the club next May. But that is not the end of the affair. At least six countries, and perhaps as many as a dozen, may have referendums before their governments ratify the document, as they all must before it comes into force. If just one or two little countries say no, they may be asked to vote again (as has happened before, with the Danes and Irish). But if several countries or a couple of bigger ones demur, then the whole process may have to start again—or the Union may, after a pause, offer a humbler treaty based just on those parts of the document that cause no offence. No permanent sacred scroll is yet in the offing.
But even before that, the EU's governments must agree on a text. A lot of painful bargaining still lies ahead. But they look likely, at a pinch, to find a compromise. The governments will gather in Rome on October 4th, along with those of the ten expected newcomers mainly from central Europe, at an “inter-governmental conference” (an IGC, in Euro-jargon) to start their hoped-for final deliberations.
The Italians, who hold the EU's rotating six-month presidency until the end of the year, are mad keen to seal the document in December in a grandiose new treaty of Rome, echoing the one in 1957 that got the European project going. They may just manage it. But a truly final agreement on the draft may not be clinched until March, which is just about the latest when lawyers can get the document in shape to reconcile it, in time for the new entrants, with thousands of pages of existing treaties that it will replace. Most important of all, it must be ready for elections in all 25 countries for the European Parliament in June.
The EU's heads of government have already got what they declared, at a meeting in Greece in June, to be a “good basis” for a new constitution. Its draft had been drawn up, over many months, at a convention in Brussels chaired by a former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
There was much grumbling over the document. Some governments moaned that it lacked a truly federalist vision. Others worried that it went too far, for instance by giving the Union new powers in such areas as criminal law. But most now think the draft so finely balanced a compromise—between federalists and anti-federalists, between old-timers and newcomers, and between small countries and big ones—that it would be dangerous to disturb it very much, for fear that the whole thing might tip over. The Germans, for instance, think that so broad a consensus was reached in the convention that any government wishing to fiddle with the text must find an alternative broad consensus—which is unlikely.
Certainly the EU's founding six—France, Germany, Italy and the smaller trio of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg—are dead against big changes. France is more open to clarifying amendments, for instance on defence and foreign policy, but it too wants to preserve the broad compromises. The three Benelux countries have hinted that, should others try to unpick some of them, so might they—for instance, to reconsider the new post of chairman of the European Council, which they fear may weaken the European Commission.
Yet those keen to adopt the text broadly unchanged are likely to be disappointed. The British seem to have conceded on certain matters: for instance, they will probably let a Charter of Fundamental Rights be included, along with some extra EU powers in justice and home affairs. But they still have their “red lines” to defend. They want more safeguards to ensure that all foreign policy and tax decisions are taken unanimously, despite provisions that some of them could one day be taken by majority vote. They wish to establish that the EU's proposed new foreign minister (a title many Eurosceptics would like changed), who will be in both the European Council (where governments are represented) and in the supranational European Commission, will not answer to the commission. And they want to be sure that no EU defence policy will undermine NATO.
Defence was at one point likely to be the fiercest area of dispute. Britain and others were determined to change the text to make any EU military venture, under the unlovely name of “structured co-operation”, subordinate to NATO. The British vehemently oppose the plan, dreamt up by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, for a new and separate EU defence-planning staff to be set up at Tervuren, a Brussels suburb. Now, however, compromise is in the air: Britain will accept a separate EU planning unit so long as it is part of the existing defence framework. It may end up in the commission's Kortenberg building in Brussels, not in Tervuren.
The fiercest arguments now look likely to be over changes in the way the commission and council work. The smaller countries, including most of those from central Europe, have already met in Prague to set out their demands. Most passionately, they want the constitution to enshrine a right of every country to have a commissioner. Mr Giscard d'Estaing's text proposes that from 2009 the commission would have only 15 commissioners with a vote and another 15 without one. The smalls, backed by the commission itself, insist that each country should have a voting commissioner, even though a 30-strong commission would be unwieldy, wasteful and weaker.
Most big countries hint that they will give way on this score but not on the proposed new weighting of votes in the council, where the biggest countries would have more clout, partly in keeping with their population sizes. Spain and Poland are fiercely against a proposal in the draft for voting by “double majority”: that is, a decision would be taken if a simple majority of countries, comprising at least three-fifths of the EU's population, agrees. The Spaniards and Poles want to stick to the existing more complex system of votes, agreed three years ago in Nice, which gives them each the unduly high number of 27 votes, against 29 for Germany, even though Germany is twice as populous. The new constitutional draft in effect bolsters Germany. The Poles say they ratified their entry in the EU on the basis of the Nice treaty, so it should not be changed.
Because the constitution must be agreed unanimously, Poland and Spain may get their way, though the Poles will probably have to drop their demand for a reference in the preamble to God. Germany may yet try to force the Spaniards to give way by threatening to chop the funds they get out of the EU, in next year's budget negotiations—which, some Germans say, will be the EU's toughest ever.
Either way, expect a new constitution to be signed by the spring. But whether it will last without further changes, or ever come into force, is still an open question.
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