Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Prodi ups the constitutional stakes

I just caught the start of this interview with ex-European Commission President Romano Prodi on the Today Programme this morning (needs RealPlayer), but what little I did hear seemed to threaten a mini-crisis for pro-Europeans.

There doesn't appear to be a transcript yet, so this isn't verbatim, but he said something along the lines of "any referendum on the European constitution is not just about the constitution - it is about the EU itself."

This is patently bollocks, but as there is a fairly good chance a referendum on this particular constitution may be lost (assuming the UK ever gets around to holding one - which considering how many other referenda have to be won in other member states before ours isn't that likely), should this be the case the anti-EU cause will instantly be bolstered far more than simply winning the referendum vote. They will also then have a former Commission President's words to back up their claim that a "no" vote on the constitution is a vote to withdraw from the EU.

We shouldn't read more into the potential rejection of this constitution than is necessary. If it isn't approved, a new (doubtless watered-down) version will be drawn up. Considering the complexity and confusion of the current document, this could well be the best thing for Europe.

I am largely pro-EU, and am one of the few people who doesn't HAVE to who has read the constitution all the way through (fun, fun, fun!), yet I'm still not entirely sure whether I would vote "yes" to ratify it were I offered the chance in a referendum.

Most people haven't read the whole thing and so will have to rely on biased (either pro or anti) summaries from the press; even if they do read the entire thing, most people are not well enough versed in European law or the language of diplomatic relations to make any sense of the thing.

It's not a simple push towards greater integration, no matter what the Eurosceptics may claim; equally, it is not simply a tidying up exercise, as the pro-EU camp has argued. Even if you are capable of reading and understanding the constitution in its current form, it's so bloody big and convoluted it's nearly impossible to tell what the hell it actually stands for - if, indeed, it actually stands for anything.

There's no doubt a witty comment about the constitution being a metaphor for the EU itself to be made here - after all, it's very hard to get agreement on what the EU stands for these days. This is precisely why we need a constitution - but why couldn't we simply have followed the American model?

Update: Both The Road to Euro Serfdom and Lose the Delusion have takes on this as well - not about Prodi's comments, but those of EU Secretary General Javier Solana who, while not going as far as Prodi, has stated the obvious fact that if the constitution is rejected there will be consequences for the EU relations of those member states whose citizens don't fancy it much. This will, of course, largely be because those states which do ratify it will be a tad pissed off that they can't go ahead and do what they want because people in other countries don't want to. In other words, the checks and balances of the EU system will be frustrating those who want greater integration, while those who don't will be able to carry on pretty much as before - the EU project will (for now, at least) progress only as quickly as its most reluctant members will allow.

Update 2: Via the ever-interesting Political Theory Daily Review, a good American summary of the proposed European constitution and its problems: "The document reads more like the by-laws of a very large corporation or a bureaucratic behemoth rather than like a constitution organizing the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government... It could thus seem that this entire proposed "Constitution for Europe" may be the first draft needed to grow the concept out of its initial amorphous neutered stage into an organized system of mature checks and balances... Let's hope so. A vigorous debate might just create the conditions needed to transfer the discussion from the "artful compromise" full of brilliant yet seemingly paralyzing definitions to the design of a practical fundamental law democratically determined by an in-formed electorate."

5 Comments:

Blogger ken said...

We could not follow the American model for several reasons; first the American Constitution is based on English Common Law, not Code Napoleon. Also it would not retain the power of integration that is needed to fully integrate the EU into one unit, because it places the power in the hands of the electorate which would not guarantee the completion of the process. For full integration to be accomplished the Commission must remain unaccountable to the people who might scupper the whole project if allowed a voice in the proceedings. There is also the point that the EU seems to be intent on creating a constitution based on a socialist agenda rather than leaving social policies to the people at any future election, the USA according to its constitution could in theory be any shade of political thought, based on the outcome of the elections.

The one important thing the EU constitution does is to totally reform the institution; it repeals all the existing treaties and re-founds the EU based on its own constitution taking its authority from that constitution. It is therefore no longer the product of the member states and no longer reliant for its power on the member states, they are made subservient to the EU constitution, and are duty bound to assist the Commision in its own duties flowing from the constitution. It also simplifies the method of changing the constitution, as the EU is no longer treaty based an agreement of the heads of member states can affect change without recourse to either the parliaments or the people.

Legally if the constitution is not ratified the EU will still exist based on the present treaties, the fact that some of the states have ratified and some have not is immaterial, the others cannot go ahead unless there is 100% ratification, in theory. But it is becoming clear that the intergrationalist are intent on forcing a division however they cannot do anything about it if other states do not agree, other than renounce the treaties and go off and form a new Union, leaving those states which voted no as the only remaining members of the present EU. So in a sense Prodi is right that the referendum is not just about constitution but the future of the EU, but only because there is this force for ever more integration.

I feel you are right, that should there not be 100% ratification they will take a step back from the demands the constitution makes by watering it down, however the outcome will certainly be a forward step for integration, as this is built in to the whole process of the EU.

Welcome Back and Happy New Year

1/04/2005 11:40:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well caught! Prodi's comments could spark some serious debate if repeated again closer to the time, but I think that we are far enough off from the campaign that it will not have a direct effect at this stage. In the meantime, I was glad to hear that Solana, who is respected, is trying to convey a seriousness to the situation without being too heavy handed.

While I appreciate Solana's tone in terms of the referendum campaign, I feel that Prodi's comments could be far closer to the political reality if there is a 'No' vote. On the whole, I also lean towards the view that if the Constitution is ratified by 24 of the 25 countries (which could well happen) and the UK is the sole rejectionist it could well force the UK into taking a 'strong political decision' on whether to continue with membership of the EU. Of course, there may be talk of a second referendum, but I am not sure what could be done to make the Constitution any more palatable to British voters. In fact, it is questionable whether and changes could be made at all without unsetting the other member states. In any case, I have a feeling that the 'No' vote may not be reversible even with some major changes.

Anyway, I remember discussing this with a prominent British EU commentator last year who was also very worried that Britain might be left with no option but to withdraw from the EU if it rejects the Constitution. Of course, there are many who will be overjoyed at this prospect. But let's see who has the last laugh. Eurosceptics may hate the current situation, but let's see how much they hate it when Britain has to accept EU rules without having a say in the decision-making process!

James

1/04/2005 01:44:00 pm  
Blogger Serf said...

This approach seems to be a major plank in the Vote Yes campaign.

They Believe that UK voters are basically:
1) Unhappy with the EU
2) Not ready to leave

So they figure that if they constantly claim that rejecting the constitution is equal to leaving the EU, then a yes vote can be forced out of a reluctant electorate.

They are of course playing with fire, by raising the stakes.

As you imply, the constitution is far from perfect whatever your point of view, so this approach is more than a little stupid.

1/04/2005 02:13:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Ken - I meant "American model" more in the sense of a relatively general statement of common principles, but you raise some good points. As for the constitution repealing all the existing treaties and making them anew, I'd argue that this is long overdue. So much EU legislation is massively outdated - especially since May last year and the expansion to 25 member states - that something needs to be done to get an agreement between all member nations, formulated by all member nations. this has long been part of Britain's problem with the whole European project - we had to sign up to the Treaty of Rome when we joined despite having no say (through our own choice) in its formulation.

James - Yep, I've often wondered how that minority of Eurosceptics who advocate withdrawal think Britain will be able to exist without any say at all in the decision-making process. The lack of influence was, after all, one of the primary reasons why we joined in the first place. Admittedly, Britain's influence has never been as great as many had hoped, but the ability to have some impact is surely better than being utterly impotent?

The EU will carry on no matter what Britain does - the question we should all be asking is should we actively seek to gain some benefit from the project, or sit on the sidelines and hope it somehow all works out to our advantage?

EU-Serf - You'll certainly hear no complaints from me by describing the "Yes" Campaign's approach as "stupid". The same is equally true of the "No" Campaign - both self-proclaimed voices of the two perceived sides are assuming far, far too much about the attitudes of British voters. As the recent US elections proved, opinion polls mean very little - and there have been enough of these by now to give both campaigns some false comfort.

My only hope - an ongoing one, as several of my past posts have made clear - is that, when it comes to the crunch, the British electorate will be sensible enough to realise that when it comes to the EU, nothing can be boiled down to a black/white, good/bad split. It is far, far more complicated than any of the major mouthpieces of the opposing sides have ever made out.

This is not a "Europhile" vs. "Eurosceptic" debate, it is a debate about what is best for Britain - and no one can truly tell what that may be. The EU has and is causing many problems; it has and is presenting many benefits as well (albeit often not as obviously as the problems).

But what the EU is doing now is not the issue - it is what it can do in the future if we stay in, and what the consequences will be if we are further sidelined or pull out. I'd go for the "better the devil you know" line - the world, and Britain's place in it, is very, very different now than it was when we joined. Being stuck on our own in such a world is not, in my opinion, in the national interest, and I reckon Europe is our best bet for retaining influence.

A pride in Britain's past is a great thing to have, but we need to recognise that the time when we were the most powerful nation on the planet is long gone, and highly unlikely ever to be recovered. Others may disagree, but the truth of the matter is neither I nor they can predict the future, which is what this whole thing is about. It's all guesswork.

1/04/2005 02:36:00 pm  
Blogger ken said...

My point was that not only are the treaties re written but the constitution also reforms the EU so the power flows in the opposite direction from the EU down to the member state, not as is the case at present. However whilst the motor of integration is still working as fast as it can, then we also need to look at the future with regard to our sovereignty, do we want to be a member state within a union with the same powers of self determination that a Texan has, he at least feels American. There are already discussions taking place with regard to the next Constitutional change.

1/04/2005 04:32:00 pm  

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