The 'European' Constitution for dummies – I

August 9, 2004

IF A CAMEL IS A HORSE DESIGNED BY A COMMITTEE, then what’s the nature of the ‘beast’-or rather, the ‘European’ Constitution-proposed by a specially-appointed convention, wrangled over by political leaders from 25 EU member states, amended a thousand times (literally) after submissions from countless political and non-political bodies, personally targeted by the pope urging the global prayers of the faithful, and now about to be presented in all 25 EU nations for approval through referenda or parliamentary debate?

If you’ve found it all confusing, so has the majority of the European Union’s 450 million citizens. Yet within the coming year or so, many of us living in EU countries will be asked our opinion about the proposed constitution. Does it really matter? What’s it all about anyway? And could God still get a mention in this apparently important document?

Actually, a major goal of this whole exercise has been to reduce confusion. The European Economic Community, defined by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, began with six members and about 175 million citizens. Since then the Community grew in spurts to nine, ten and twelve members, becoming the European Union of fifteen and now twenty-five member states, with Bulgaria and Romania to join in 2007 and more in the waiting room. From the start, any European country meeting the appropriate standards of democracy and rule of law could join the EEC. But the treaties, institutions, structures and decision-making procedures also just grew like Topsy on foundations never intended for such a broad membership. After all, if we couldn’t even see the fall of communism coming in the 80’s, who could foresee it in the 50’s?

So the European Convention on the Future of Europe was set up in February 2002. The goal was to draft a new EU Constitution embodying whatever radical reforms were needed. The aims were to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the EU; to streamline decision-making processes; and to give extra weight to the EU’s voice in world affairs. One newspaper cartoon depicted the convention chairman, former French president, Giscard d’Estaing, surrounded by European leaders including Chirac, Schroeder, Blair and Balkenende-all dressed in late18th century attire-reading the ‘European’ constitution from a great scroll: ‘We declare our independence … from the USA!’

[Europeans from the 17 or so non-EU nations in Europe could be forgiven for hearing a certain arrogance in the constant reference to the ‘European’ Constitution-and talk of the EU as ‘Europe’-as if somehow the Swiss, the Norwegians and the Bosnians, for example, were less European than their neighbours. Although some of these nations badly want to belong to the club, others are definitely in no hurry to jump on the bandwagon. It’s more respectful and accurate therefore to refer to the EU Constitution rather than the ‘European’ Constitution.]

The convention presented its final draft to the EU leaders under Dublin’s leadership in June this year, where a final bout of frenetic horse-trading preceded eventual adoption on June 18 by the gathered chief executives. Hot issues included:
> whether or not each state had a right to a seat on the EU commission (result: the first Commission appointed in 2009 will have one representative from each nation; after that it will be reduced to contain one national from two thirds of the member states, 18 commissioners, equally rotated among members);
> consensus versus qualified majority voting (decisions can now be made on the so-called double majority system, where a majority is reached with 55 per cent of member states representing at least 65 per cent of EU population; but this does not apply to foreign policy and security issues, justice and home affairs, social security, taxes, economic policy or the charter of fundamental rights);
> and the appointment of a permanent president for the European Council instead of rotating the presidency every six months (which would have probably meant one turn per nation every fifteen years).

However, considering everything, most seem to feel the beast is not such a bad-looking camel after all. Debate is the essence of democracy, and the intense debate this process has occasioned, at least in political echelons, has encouraged public discussion on issues previously decided behind closed doors.

The official adoption of the agreement will take place in Rome in November. But the constitution will not be enacted for another five years – in November 2009! What’s next is a further tricky phase, when every country has two years to ratify the constitution – via public referendum or parliamentary approval. While Schroeder remains opposed to a German referendum, so far France, Holland, the Czech Republic, Spain, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Luxembourg, Ireland and Portugal have all announced plans to give the public a say.

And if just one country says no? Then the whole process can get bogged down. That happened once before when Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty, and the question had to be put to the voters a second time. If one or more countries has not agreed within two years, it becomes a matter for new deliberation among the leaders. We can expect a considerable effort to ‘sell’ the constitution to the EU citizens over the coming period, perhaps by a committee of wise men, including the likes of Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission.

The one issue that stirred the passions of the general Christian public was the ‘God’ question. Should God get an honourable mention in the preamble to the constitution? The decision apparently has been made. Barring an act of God himself, he will not get his due respect. Of course, he is quite able to act on his own behalf, and that would be a most interesting development…

There’s much to say on this issue and its implications for the future of Europe – but that will have to wait for a later w e e k l y w o r d.

But next week I want to tell you about a picnic that hastened the downfall of communism exactly 15 years ago.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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