Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Of mice, men and the language of EU reform

by Hugo Brady

Beware the humourless, especially in politics. At a CER/Clifford Chance conference last week, Guiliano Amato, Italy’s interior minister, pronounced that the Reform Treaty was a return to familiar territory for the EU: an unreadable treaty. A few refused to get the joke, portraying Amato’s playful observation as an explosive revelation that the Reform Treaty is indeed the EU constitution encrypted. ("Loathsome smugness", seethes Open Europe’s blog).

How odd. The conference was clearly on the record and Amato's warmly ironic tone was anything but pompous. But Open Europe also missed the bigger point in Amato’s speech: his admission that we never had a real constitution to start with. Amato, a widely admired statesman and former prime minister, was vice-chair of the convention that first wrote the EU constitution in 2003. The convention, he said, had wrongly dressed up a set of fairly good ideas, designed to make the EU’s institutions, foreign and justice policies work better, as being something it was not: a grand constitution.

The governments stuck with the name ‘constitution’ in the hope, rather than the expectation, that it might grab the attention of citizens and make the EU more popular. But according to Amato, the document was always much more a ‘boy’ than a ‘girl’, referring to the French words ‘le traité’ (masculine) and ‘la constitution’ (feminine). This reflects the nature of the EU itself, which Amato christened a "hermaphrodite": not merely an inter-governmental organisation but far from being a state.

True, much of proposed Reform Treaty is to be taken from the wreck of the so-called constitution. But, aside from the name, other controversial aspects are being amended or dropped: there are about 20 significant changes in all. The new treaty will be completely stripped of any pretensions to be a US constitution-style founding charter. As the communications commissioner, Margot Wallström, who also addressed the conference, quipped: mice are genetically 90 per cent identical to human beings "but the remaining ten per cent makes all the difference".

Nonetheless language, legal and otherwise, matters in the European debate. Hence the outcry over Sarkozy’s deletion of a key reference to ‘undistorted competition’ from the new treaty or Commission president Barroso’s well-intentioned, but foolish, description of the EU as a new "non-imperial empire" (a misnomer in any case: a non-empire empire?). And now, when just about everyone else has finally accepted that the idea of a constitution for Europe is dead, British Eurosceptics cling to the term in a bid to pressure the government into holding a referendum.

Why? Sovereignty is hardly the issue. Sir Stephen Wall, another keynote speaker last Thursday, noted the British are blasé, in contrast with their European counterparts, on key issues of sovereignty like trade liberalisation and foreign ownership of industry. The thought of foreigners owning home-grown car industries makes continental politicians shiver; the British care little. Neither can it be a reaction to British politicians and diplomats having failed to defend national interests the negotiations on the treaty. Peter Altmaier, a minister in Angela Merkel's government, rather ruefully outlined to the conference how the UK had won the most from the three negotiations leading to this treaty: the convention, the 2004 inter-governmental conference on the constitution, and the recent June summit.

No, Eurosceptics here hope a referendum on Europe will be the beginning of the disengagement from the EU they long for. A referendum would be the perfect political arena to portray issues like the role of EU foreign policy or the primacy of EU law as an affront to British sovereignty and awake fears of what Hugh Gaitskill, a former Labour leader, famously called “the end of a thousand years of history”.

In the past, well meaning pro-Europeans and commentators have also called for a referendum in Britain on the EU, as a way of challenging the orthodoxies of the British European debate. This is wrong-headed. Yes, Gordon Brown should encourage passionate debate on Britain’s interests in Europe. But if he fails to stand firm against calls for a referendum, he risks opening a Pandora's box of obfuscation and media-fed nationalism, as well as handing a platform to fringe political forces from across the UK. (I exaggerate? Read Frederick Forsythe's "Pledge a referendum on Europe Mr Cameron", FT July 16th.) To paraphrase Gaitskill's wife, as she listened to the standing ovation elicited by his famous speech: a British referendum on Europe would make all the wrong people cheer.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.


Anonymous said...

Do you regard the new version of the constitution as being radically different to the original?

If so why are all of the following wrong?

“The substance of the constitution is preserved. That is a fact.”
(Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, Telegraph, 29 June 2007)

“90 per cent of it is still there... these changes haven't made any dramatic change to the substance of what was agreed back in 2004.”
(Bertie Ahern, Irish Taoiseach, Irish Independent, 24 June 2007)

Czech Republic
“Only cosmetic changes have been made and the basic document remains the same.”
(Vaclav Klaus, Czech President, Guardian, 13 June 2007)

“A great part of the content of the European Constitution is captured in the new treaties.”
(Jose Zapatero, Spanish PM, El Pais 23 June 2007)

“There’s nothing from the original institutional package that has been changed.”
(Astrid Thors, Finnish Europe Minister, TV-Nytt, 23 June 2007)

“The good thing is...that all the symbolic elements are gone, and that which really matters – the core – is left.”
(Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Danish PM, Jyllands-Posten, 25 June 2007)

“The original Treaty for a Constitution was maintained in substance.”
(Austrian government website, 25 June 2007)

The new treaty “takes up the most important elements of the constitutional treaty project.”
(Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian PM, Agence Europe, 24 June 2007)

“As for our conditions… I outlined four red lines with respect to the text of the Constitution: to keep a permanent president of the EU, to keep the single overseer for foreign policy and a common diplomatic service, to keep the extension of majority voting, to keep the single legal personality of the Union. All of this has stayed.”
(Romano Prodi, Italian PM, La Repubblica, 24 June 2007)

Lithuania has “100 percent fulfilled the tasks set forth before the meeting, including the primary objective of preserving the substance of the Constitutional Treaty.”
(Office of the President of Lithuania, official press release)

“The substance has been preserved from Luxembourg’s point of view.”
(Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxemburg PM, Agence Europe, 24 June)

With the new treaty, the EU gets “content that is not essentially different from the constitutional treaty… All key institutional solutions remain… Some symbolic elements will be cleared up and some formulations toned down.”
(Janez Jansa, Slovenian PM, 23 June 2007, Slovenian Government Communication Office)

The European Commission
“It’s essentially the same proposal as the old Constitution.”
(Margot Wallstrom, EU Commissioner, Svenska Dagbladet, 26 June 2007)

The author of the EU Constitution
“This text is, in fact, a rerun of a great part of the substance of the Constitutional Treaty.”
(Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Telegraph, 27 June 2007)

European Parliament
The European Parliament “welcomes the fact that the mandate safeguards the substance of the Constitutional treaty.”
(European Parliament resolution, 10 July 2007)

Anonymous said...

The return to business is usual is an important element to highlight.

After agreeing that things could "never again" be done the same as at Nice, and getting as far as at least some kind of public process via the convention, we are back in the Intergovernmental darkness again.

Amato is right to point out that that, at least, is a retrograde step.