by Hugo Brady
“We are not the first who meaning the best have incurred the worst”, is a line from tragic heroine Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear. But it could apply equally well to the architects of the EU’s failed constitutional treaty, also a tragic but unfinished saga.
EU politicians and diplomats wanted to refresh public confidence in European integration by agreeing a treaty to set out clearly the Union’s lofty goals and the powers governments were handing over to achieve them. But instead the constitution had the opposite effect.
The popular rejections of the treaty in 2005 forebode that citizens might withdraw their hitherto quiet consent for deeper European co-operation altogether. And the referendums created the expectation that major changes to the existing patchwork quilt of treaties will have to be decided in future by further polls. The development of the EU – either through institutional reforms or further enlargements – could be in serious peril.
Many blame the treaty’s failure on the name given to it by its drafters: the EU ‘constitution’. The term was bound to scare people, they say. It suggests that a citizen’s own national constitution or legal system is about to be junked in favour of a single European charter. Article I-6 of the treaty text, for example, stated that EU law is superior to those of the member-states.
In fact, the governments thought up the ‘constitution’ tag to inspire European citizens rather than to intimidate them. They wanted to create a statement of shared European values and goals to accompany the not-so-interesting details of how the work was to get done. Something we could all be proud of, in other words. And the superiority of EU law to national law turns out not to be very scary at all. The treaty simply made transparent a legal reality: EU laws, in areas like the protection of the environment, have trumped national laws since the 1960s.
The constitution backfired because adorning the EU with national-style symbols will never make people love it, according to Timothy Garton Ash of Oxford University. There will never be a country called Europe. Being a European will always be a milder expression of identity than someone’s national identity. ‘Euronationalism’ - constitutions, anthems, national days and the like – is not the answer to bringing Europeans together. We need something else, something that can sustain a tightly knit European family capable of expressing itself and its wishes to the world.
One starting point is a frank and truthful discussion about what Europeans today – east and west – really have in common with one another. Garton Ash, a professor of European studies, suggests that from such a debate could spring a new European “story” based around six words: freedom, peace, law, diversity, prosperity, and solidarity.
Talk of shared values makes people yawn. But how Europeans might differ – or agree – about what these words mean to them begs some interesting questions. Is it possible to feel patriotic about being European? Why has Europe only recently come to enjoy (almost) uniform peace and democracy? Do we need a common enemy to unite us? If so, is it American imperialism, Islamic militancy or rather our own bloody history? Is it really so certain that Europeans will never fight each other again? And why, after more than 50 years of pressing hard for more and more political integration, are Germans no less German or Italians any less Italian?
Garton Ash admits that six abstract nouns alone will not create a popular attachment to the EU anymore than the idea of a constitution has done. But Europeans of every stripe should have an “awantura” (Polish, he says, for a loud but delectable argument) about where we have come from and where we are going, nonetheless.
To take part in Timothy Garton Ash’s search for a new European story, go to www.europeanstory.net
Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.