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The Struggle For Europe's Constitution

November 8, 2005 4:00 PM
By Andrew Duff MEP in FT.com

Europe's leadership is not in good shape. Of the six largest member states, Germany has been without a government for two months. France seems incapable of stemming the spread of civic disobedience - the incidence of which, by the way, vividly illustrates the climate in which President Chirac lost his referendum on the European constitution earlier this year. A long and bitter general election campaign between Mr Berlusconi and Mr Prodi has begun in Italy. Tony Blair's prime ministerial authority is draining away in Britain, while he struggles to complete his final term as president of the EU Council. Poland's new minority government of conservative nationalists is hardly likely to contribute to the good governance of the European Union.

In these trying circumstances, there will not be much fruitful reflection among governments on how to find a way out of the EU's constitutional crisis. Welcome, then, the European Parliament's efforts to compensate for the paralysis of the European Council. MEPs are preparing to launch their strategy to salvage the Constitution. They are determined to bring to the Union's famous 'period of reflection' a target, process and schedule that it will otherwise continue to lack. A series of parliamentary forums will be proposed, uniting the European and national parliaments in discussing some fundamental questions about the contemporary relevance and future direction of European integration. A common European template will be established for an ambitious debate to be undertaken by political parties and civil society at all levels of government across the Union. This process will last until December 2007 when a decision will have to be taken about whether or not to renegotiate the text of the constitutional treaty.

In the preliminary discussions in the Parliament, two main bodies of opinion have emerged. One, mainly composed of German MEPs, clings to the hope that a couple of interpretative declarations, glued on to the existing text, will be enough to persuade the French and Dutch to have another go at ratification around 2008-09, once the much anticipated widespread change of European leadership has taken place. I know of no French or Dutch MEP who takes this line, however, and such a tactic would hardly commend itself to europhobic Britain.

The second school of thought, which seems to be gathering momentum, contemplates a judicious modification of the text aimed at meeting the genuine concerns of public opinion (not just in France and Holland). The contention is that the Constitution will only become popular if it is improved. The period of reflection should be used to define precisely what needs to be done in order to democratise the consensus that was formed initially behind the Constitution by national governments and EU institutions.

Five topics stand out as candidates for the agenda of any renegotiation. First, the structure of the Constitution should be made less rigid. A proper hierarchy needs to be introduced between the four parts of the constitutional treaty so as to make it easier to reform the EU's common policies in the future.

Second, the system of economic governance must be strengthened so as to enhance the coherence and autonomy of the eurozone member states. The eurogroup should be enabled to have a common fiscal policy if it wants one, and to become a political counterweight to the ultra-independent European Central Bank.

Third, Europe needs to sort out the muddle of its different and sometimes divergent paths to economic growth and social justice. Surely it is possible to design a single framework for a social model that promotes both investment and employability inside which valued national and regional particularities would be able to coexist competitively.

Fourth, climate security should be promoted to become the driving imperative of all other common policies. At present, EU environmental policy is a flanking policy of the single market. It should be given the same salience as food security in the 1950s. Argument about the reform of the CAP and about the balance between free and fair trade could then be had within a political context that matched public concerns.

Fifth, and lastly, the Constitution should speak more expressly about the frontiers of Europe. The citizen has a right to know how fast and far the Union will enlarge. The search for political identity has a spatial element. We must spell out how hard it is to become (and remain) a member state of the Union, and justify the fact that the constitutional project is about widening and deepening the Union at the same time.

If negotiation on these five items, taken together, goes well, it may prove possible to do even more to improve the text of the 2004 Constitution and to mount a confident and successful campaign to get the European public to back it. Failure even to try to salvage the Constitution will rightly condemn this generation of Europe's leaders to oblivion: they would be wise in their present enfeebled situation to back the European Parliament's initiative.