Constitution summit underscores the myth of European unity

Posted in Europe | 15-Dec-03 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

BRUSSELS - In the final hours before the European Union's attempt to adopt a constitution officially disintegrated, presidents, chancellors and prime ministers urged one another in speeches not to portray the breakdown-to-come as a disaster, a participant said.

To the extent that the euro is likely to stay intact and strong, that no one traveling from Lisbon to Rome across three national borders suddenly needs to produce a passport at every frontier and that polls show a majority of the EU's citizens already failing to regard the Union as a "a good thing," efforts by Europe's leaders - Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder among them - at coordinating damage control did not push credence in its most literal sense.

In fact, alongside the more partisan involvement of France and Germany, Blair and Britain's prominence as a go-between and voice of reason in attempting to smooth out the fatal power-sharing dispute about who gets how many votes under the proposed constitution pointed in the direction of a future Europe with a more engaged, more consensual British role.

During the summit-level negotiations before the collapse, Britain could say it had made certain that every country would have a veto right over foreign policy, defense and tax matters. This ensured that when constitutional talks begin again - their restart is likely in 2004 - essentials like war, peace, and taxation would not be decided by majorities subject to the bullying and national political posturing that both mark the EU's reality and felled the constitutional talks.

But while well short of resulting in a calamity in practical terms, the breakdown was a fiasco of the spirit, coming five months before the EU expands from 15 members to 25.

For the time being, it stamped as ridiculous the EU's litany of European unity and solidarity. If its traces survived, they were rhetorical and clearly subordinate to national interest. This week at least, the old idealistic flame of a United States of Europe lay between barest flicker and ash.

There was more. In a year of European divisiveness, the collapse added a new, embarrassing coda to Europe's fragmentation on Iraq policy, its waves of racism and anti-Semitism and its tactical submission, under French and German pressure, in abandoning the deficit and debt limits that gave substance to the Stability and Growth Pact behind EU economic and monetary policy.

Indeed, a sense of fiasco lay at the heart of the dispute over voting rights under the new constitution that broke the summit apart.

Stripped of its complex computer projections on how many votes and what percentage of the EU's overall population it would actually take to allow the integration process to go forward with 25 members, the confrontation involved Germany and France backing a formula that would bolster their attempts at pre-eminence. This hinged on the constitutional draft's provision to reduce the voting rights of Spain and Poland, seen as faithful allies of the United States, and together capable of forming the basis of a blocking minority.

The absurdity of the current situation was in the fact that Spain and Poland's advantageous share of power was won through a French plan at the Nice Summit of December 2000. Then, France engineered strengthened Spanish and Polish decision-making roles while Chirac openly warned of an effort by Germany to "unhook" itself from voting parity with other big countries and seize European primacy.

In that context, Chirac called the Nice solution "the best text ever signed since the Common Market came into existence." In turn, the Nice Treaty was duly ratified, member state by member state, to go into existence with the entry of the new candidates from the old Soviet bloc on May 1, 2004.

Incoherence or just the inconsistency of bald power politics? Analysis points in any case to a reversal in the politics of national interest of both France and Germany. During late 2002 and spring 2003, by freeing Schröder from isolation on his Iraq war stance, Chirac has successfully moved French and German policy into closer alignment and greater distance from the United States.

Now, the "double majority" voting formula called by the constitutional draft gives Germany, as the EU country with the largest population, a unique advantage - and exactly what Chirac bitterly fought against three years ago. These days, Chirac seems to believe the psychic underpinning of the French-German relationship runs sufficiently in France's favor so that Germany can be allowed to grasp the voting primacy France previously held as existential anathema.

For the Spanish and Polish governments, portrayed as uppity rebels by the Germans and French, it was impossible in terms of domestic politics to surrender a place in the EU sun unanimously accepted and ratified by all of Europe. They, in turn, characterized France and Germany as trying to run the EU on their terms.

The Poles, in particular, with centuries of historical experience to support their instincts, suggested that the Germany of Gerhard Schröder was burying its postwar place as institutional Europe's consistent benefactor for a new, rougher kind of self-interest.

In this context, a non-decision, although tied to the ignominy of a collapse, could be seen as a political respite for all the central players. A weak Polish government had a better shot at survival, and the party of Prime Minister José María Aznar of Spain would go into national elections in March having kept to its guns.

Schröder could focus with his reform program unencumbered by closer involvement with an EU that only 37 percent of the German population considered "generally advantageous." With French regional elections and European parliamentary elections on the calendar for the first half of the year, Chirac seemed to have the same considerations.

Blair, on most issues a winner, indicating sympathy for Poland and Spain while not antagonizing France and Germany, could concentrate on saying that Britain had guaranteed getting its way on foreign policy, defense and taxes in whatever constitution that finally takes shape down the road.

Regardless of the scent of fiasco, in trying to sustain the impression that France had its hand on the rudder of European leadership, Chirac talked of the possibility of pioneer or core groups of a few nations (read France and Germany) pressing on with integration while others dithered. But in making the call, Chirac acknowledged himself that there were problems with an idea that involved creating the sense of a first and second class Europe, a situation he said "would be unacceptable."

Italy rejected the two-speed concept and so did Luxembourg, a good gauge of sentiment in Europe's small countries. Schröder touched on it as well, but it was an even more cautious manner than Chirac.

"You can't wish for it," he said, and described pioneer groups as a consideration only in the event of a "definitive" breakdown in adopting a constitution. For good measure, and perhaps seeking pre-emptive distance from the unpopular concept of a French-German union or directorate, Schröder mentioned the desirability of British participation.

With its first try at adopting a constitution shattered, that seemed to leave Europe, however discomforted by its new bout with futility, in a position where it has been many times before.

Once again, trying to bring Europe toward greater unity would involve waiting, regrouping, and muddling through. This was reality, not a disaster.