The draft European Constitution reveals a deep political malaise at the heart of the EU.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

There is much sound and fury surrounding the European Union (EU) Constitution currently being drawn up by representatives of member states. But a closer reading of the document reveals the deep political malaise at the heart of the EU.

At the Nice Summit in December 2000, the EU opened the door to 10 (mainly East European) countries hoping to join Europe’s exclusive club. The gathering of national leaders was subject to the usual euro-squabbles. But all agreed on one thing – that the move from a 15-member to 25-member organisation must go along with an institutional shake-up, to prevent an already opaque and slow decision-making system from grinding to a halt.

The exhaustion of European political elites was becoming increasingly visible at both the EU and national level. As the legitimacy of governments across Europe hit an all-time low, EU national leaders looked to Brussels as never before. The scene was set for a new phase of European politics.

By 2002 it was clear that the EU constitution, billed as a mere ‘tidying up’ exercise by the UK, had assumed a greater political significance. A number of important events contributed to this development: Ireland voted ‘No’ to the Nice Treaty; the euro became legal tender; anti-capitalists protested outside high-security European summits; multilateralism assumed a new significance after 11 September; the EU-friendly French socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin was beaten by a neo-fascist at the polls.

A 105-strong European Constitution ‘convention’ has been meeting since March 2002 -representing EU institutions, governments and parliaments, and led by 77-year-old former French president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Its proposals are now finally firming up (1).

Britain’s manufactured hysteria over the EU constitution stands in stark contrast to the tedium of the actual documents (2). Euro-sceptics share at least one thing with their euro-federalist enemies: wild-eyed hyperbole to do with all that is EU.

On one side, we have shrieks that the constitution will abolish liberty and install a Giscardian tyranny comparable to the darkest days of the Soviet Union. On the other, there is the fantasy that the exercise represents something new, progressive or exciting in politics. Both an exhausted right and a tired left dream that electorates long weary of centrist political parties will be galvanised by Europe.

Voters are set to deliver a different verdict, with trends for European polls showing a profound indifference and cynicism towards the EU project. Of course, plummeting turnouts could hold out the prospect of stunning reversals for referendums. But after Ireland’s shock rebuff in the 2001 referendum on the Nice Treaty, canny euro-fixers have introduced a clause allowing Europe’s leaders to arm-twist and do deals if up to five EU member states lose referendums.

‘No’ votes are at best temporarily inconvenient for national governments or Brussels. Neither ‘no’ votes nor ‘yes’ votes represent a new political movement. It is the absence of any ‘demos’ or political movement either for or against the European Union that gives Giscard’s convention a sense of futility – but this same political vacuum also gives the convention space to exist.

Perhaps the most palpable expression of the constitution’s barrenness has been a row over the inclusion of a religious reference in a preamble declaration of European values. For its part, Brussels backed an ‘inclusive reference to spirituality’. Commission president Romano Prodi regularly consults advisers on ‘spiritual values’, and EU trade chief Pascal Lamy is said to attend a Buddhist temple.

Europe’s continental centre-right is seeking a clear reference to a Christian God. But a firm statement of Europe’s rootedness in Christian spiritual or moral values would be, at best, hollow or token, at worst, plain stupid. Just as declarations of a ‘fundamental right’ to strike will not magic working-class militancy into life, even the EU cannot resurrect European Christianity.

This is not because ‘we are all multicultural now’, but because most Europeans simply don’t care about God, whether the deity in question is a he or she, Judaeo-Christian, Muslim or Gaia.

Expunging religion and references to humanism and reason will not be a victory for secularists, either. The dawning of a new age of superstition – most evident in the rise of environmentalism and the EU’s vaunted ‘precautionary principle’ – is stark evidence of a deep crisis in European Enlightenment thought. In fact, in a European political climate that makes a virtue out of ideology-lite Third Way politics there is a commensurate lack of belief in anything.

In his draft declaration of EU values Giscard is forced to turn for inspiration to the words of a 2440-year-old Greek written in a dead language (although he helpfully provides the translation: ‘Our Constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people’) (3). Philosophical archaeology may get a septuagenarian French aristocrat’s rocks off, but it is unlikely to command commitment in wider Europe.

‘Europe is a continent that has brought forth civilisation’, pontificates the preamble. Empty bragging about the superiority of European civilisation is unlikely to grip anyone – although it might upset a handful of postmodern academics who believe that all cultures are equally valid. Enlightenment Europe certainly birthed great works, but does anyone seriously think that the EU’s progeny will be anything but stunted pygmies compared to giants like Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel or Marx?

Eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics built on the Enlightenment to give us struggles that gave rise to nations, constitutions, ideas and leaders who shook the world. What can we expect of the new millennial Europe? A row over religion between the aristocratic Giscard and respectable bigots from German or Italian ‘Christian Democracy’ may generate heat in the stuffy confines of a convention plenary, but no light there or elsewhere.

European leaders may draw ‘red lines’ around national vetoes on policy areas such as culture or taxation. But heated conflicts over whether to take decisions at a European Council by unanimity, qualified majority votes or double simple majorities will not make history (4).

National officials and Brussels bureaucrats may get exercised over plans for a ‘double hatted’ EU foreign minister (5), but it will never be a burning issue for anyone else – except perhaps the relentlessly ambitious German politician Joschka Fischer.

The absence of any ideological content or wider popular interest in the constitution does not, of course, mean that a new treaty of Rome would be an apolitical document. What Europe does well is institutionalise new forms of government – whether voters are interested or not. Rewarding consensus over confrontation, management over political programmes and multilateralism over unilateralism, the EU is a laboratory for experiments in post-democratic legitimacy.

A recent textbook on Europe defined the EU along the following lines: ‘Even though there is no government, the EU undertakes the sort of activity that governments traditionally have done. The EU is thus a system of governance without government.’ (6)

Such an institution does not need a constitution – in the historical sense of defining public authority against unaccountable rule – and it will not get one. Unlike America’s declaration of independence, the EU’s constitution will embody the emptiness of European politics today.

Bruno Waterfield is a journalist working in Brussels. An edited version of this article appears in the Brussels satirical magazine The Sprout

Read on:

Euros from heaven, by Josie Appleton

Euro: it’s only money?, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(1) Q&A: Europe’s constitution, BBC News, 26 May 2003

(2) See the European Convention website

(3) See the preamble on the European Convention website

(4) QMV = different member states hold numbers of votes allocated by population size and arbitrary treaty tradeoffs. Germany, France, Britain and Italy have 10 votes each, even though Germany is one-third larger than the rest. Ireland has three votes, although there are 20 times more Germans than there are Irish. The total number of the votes in the 15-member council is 87, and the ‘qualified majority’ required to approve a decision is 62. DSM = a straight majority of member states which represent over half the EU’s population.

(5) Current proposals envisage the post to be chosen by elected national leaders, approved by the European Parliament, but with the minister also a commission vice-president under the influence of the Brussels ‘college’ as well as his elected colleagues on the Council

(6) The European Union: How does it work, (eds) Elizabeth Bomberg and Alexander Stubb, Oxford University Press 2003

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Topics Politics


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