Dossier: European Constitution

Merkel Begins Where Schüssel Left Off. As the EU Searches for Unity, Poland Plays the Contrarian, Refusing to Compromise.

At 5 a.m. on the morning of Saturday Jun. 23, leaders of the 27 EU member countries appeared, tired, bleary-eyed and yet smiling, to announce the outcome of the EU summit in Brussels. Following a marathon debating session, differences that had seemed intractable only hours before had been settled. Compromises had been made and an agreement reached. The Reform Treaty, the latest incarnation of the failed European constitution, would, after all, be moving on to the next phase.

People may have remembered 2005 as the year of Liverpool’s miraculous Champions League comeback, or as the year Michael Jackson arrived to face trial in his pyjamas. Or as the year French and Dutch voters buried the idea of a European constitution.

However, just over two years later, the constitution has almost completed its phoenix-like rise from its own embers, stripped down but still meaningful.

But what is this new ‘Reform Treaty?’ How does it differ? What was wrong with the original constitution in the first place? And what do the recent developments mean for the average EU citizen?

The process of designing a constitution for the European Union began with the ‘Laeken Declaration’ of the EU Summit in Dec. 2001, calling for a ‘European Convention’, subsequently headed by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The aims were threefold: Firstly, to increase institutional efficiency by replacing overlapping treaties (Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice). Secondly, to agree on a comprehensive Convention on Human Rights, and thirdly, to streamline the European parliament’s decision making process.

D’Estaing and his task force set to work. The 105 Convention members representing EU member States and candidate countries met regularly to debate publicly what should and should not be included. Egged on by d’Estaing’s forecast that Convention members would no doubt be immortalised with an equestrian statue in every village square, the Convention released its draft in July 2003. All 160,000 words of it.

It took a year for the final wording to be ironed out, before the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, as it was known, was signed by representatives of the then 25 member States in Rome in 2004. However, it still had to be ratified by each state.

The EU elite were initially optimistic that this would happen without much ado. Messy referenda would be replaced by parliamentary votes, and the constitution would come smoothly into being. Sure enough, the majority of member states fulfilled predictions. However, this was not the case everywhere. Spain, which showed popular support for the treaty, was the first country to hold a referendum. Soon after, the United Kingdom, a hotbed of euro-scepticism, announced that it too would be holding one. This put Jacques Chirac, then President of France, under pressure to do likewise.

The French ‘no’-vote, and the subsequent rejection of the constitution by the Dutch, were enormous blows. After all, these two countries were traditionally pro-European.

So what went wrong?

Most commentators now believe that the original constitution was just too inaccessible to the average person. At 160,000 words, it was much longer than, say, the U.S. Constitution – a meagre 4,600. In addition, it was written in highly concentrated legalese, making it incomprehensible for those not expert in the field. With hindsight, could it ever be expected that voters would sign away aspects of sovereignty to something they couldn’t even read?

The mood was neatly summed up in a quote by Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister. Watching the results of the France referendum while holidaying with friends in Italy, one of them asked despairingly “what have they done?” – referring to those who voted ‘no’. Mr. Blair responded: “I’m afraid the question is, ‘What is wrong with us?’,” referring to the collective political leadership of Europe.

Evidently, they had failed to get their message across.

Confidence in the European constitution was so shaken that many observers, Blair among them, were convinced that it could never succeed. However, others persisted, deciding that a little time was needed to cool off, a ‘period of reflection’. No time limit was set, and the first nation to consider re-igniting the constitutional flame was Austria, during its EU presidency in 2006.

Then Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and his Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik had been talking openly about using Austria’s presidency to revive the treaty. The initial shock of the rejection had worn off, and proper debate was again in full swing.

Schüssel managed to gain the support of Germany, Italy and Spain. But other countries were still dubious. Firstly, the French and Dutch doubted they could turn their electorate around on a treaty they had binned only six months previously. Secondly, certain countries had decamped, feeling lucky to have escaped referenda themselves. Britain, Ireland and the Nordic States simply couldn’t see the need. After all, the EU had functioned well enough, and continued to expand, without a constitution. Why risk trying again?

Ultimately, it didn’t take much to convince Schüssel to let it drop. Following the sanctions of 2000 for bringing Jörg Haider’s right-wing Freedom Party into the government – the only EU country to be so chastised – Austria had become statistically the most EU-sceptic country in the Union, with support for the document at less than 50%. With an election approaching in autumn, the gamble was too large for Schüssel’s ÖVP. It was decided to wait until Germany’s presidency, in early 2007.

Which brings us back to the present. Angela Merkel made a ‘Reform Treaty’ a priority: the best parts would be kept, the troublesome ones scrapped. The end result was the new, slim line, 16-page document.

However, having it accepted was hardly plain sailing. Britain was upset about the Human Rights Charter, which might infringe on U.K. common law. They also disagreed with nomenclature: Words like ‘constitution’ and ‘European Foreign Minister’ smacked of a loss of sovereignty. The Dutch had issues over national parliaments’ inability to intervene in EU decisions. The Poles had problems with the weighting of voting, which now gives them nearly as much power as Germany, although their population is half the size. All that would change in the new, trimmed-down document.

Still, the new treaty had a lot of support. In a press briefing prior to flying off to Brussels, Jul. 21 2007, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and Plassnik spoke optimistically of the future of the treaty, pointing out that not only had 18 countries, a large majority, already ratified the original, but that the heads of state of all members had signed it. Gusenbauer reported hoping to retain as much of the original constitution’s substance as possible. Austria would stand behind Germany. Who would create the most problems?  Britain had the most outstanding issues, he said.

Ultimately, however, it was Poland that dragged the summit into the early hours. The British and the Dutch had been appeased, but Lech Kaczynski, the Polish President, refused to budge on EU parliamentary voting. And as unanimity was required by all members, it seemed touch and go whether the Reform Treaty would outlive its predecessor at all.

Kaczynski made no attempt to hide his contempt for Germany’s position, indeed the vitriol was barely kept below the surface. However, remarks alluding to Germany’s role in the World War II probably did more to weaken its position, and little to enamour Poland to other EU members. The European Union was, after all, formed to help move on from the divisions of the past.

In the end, Poland agreed to the ‘reformed’ Reform Treaty, as long as the current voting system remains in place until 2014. The deal now done, many of the EU leaders that appeared at 5 a.m. Saturday morning – in particular the new French president Nicholas Sarkozy – all claimed victory. However, if one individual is likely to be remembered as the driving force behind the new deal, it is Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

So what does the new Reform Treaty mean for the average EU citizen? In the short run, probably not that much. Visible changes are likely to be few, and most of the adjustments will be on an institutional level, helping things there to run more smoothly.

However, now that the issue of the constitution is more or less settled, the reinvigorated Union can move on to other things. The fresh boost of confidence arriving from the knowledge that 27 different countries can come to an agreement on issues as sticky as these, will surely help on other difficult issues to come, like future enlargement, migration, further integration or security.

The real winner to come out of the Brussels summit is undoubtedly the European Union herself.

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