Draft Euro-Constitution Stirs Up British Hornets’ Nest

Today’s subject is the new EU constitution, which was released to the public this past week in four installments, and specifically about the reaction in the country where that has been most vociferous – namely the United Kingdom. Yes, this once again means a weblog entry that belies EuroSavant’s self-description as “Commentary on the European non-English-language press.” But the unveiling of the EU Constitutional Convention’s draft constitution has converged with an outbreak of public discussion over British adoption of the euro – ahead of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown’s speech scheduled for June 9 as to whether the country is at the stage where a referendum over the euro would be appropriate – to produce some truly noteworthy reporting and commentary to which I thought I would draw your attention. Even NATO does not escape unscathed.

It’s a political given in Britain today that giving up the pound sterling for the common European currency, if in fact it ever happens, will have to be authorized by a successful referendum, although first there is the matter of the “five economic tests” about which Brown will report in a couple weeks’ time. In contrast, the current Labour government does not intend to hold a referendum on the adoption of the new EU constitution. In the words of the main British representative to the Constitutional Convention, Welsh Minister Peter Hain, the new basic document is just a “tidying-up exercise” which consolidates the terms of the previous treaties, stretching back to the Treaty of Rome of 1955, which constitute the acquis communautaire of basic European law and which the UK therefore accepted upon entering the then-EEC in 1973 and then in the form of subsequent treaties (Single European Act, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, etc.).

This attitude has not gone down well among the British public, who see somewhat more than just “tidying-up” in the proposed terms of the new constitution that were made public this week. The opposition Conservative Party, for which Euroscepticism continues to represent a core principle, lost no time in demanding that a referendum in fact be held. And the tabloid press screamed bloody murder. But you’ll notice that I don’t cover the British tabloid press – this is not a tabloid weblog (“tablog”?), thank you very much! I had to rely on the Economist (subscription required) to let me know that the headlines over the draft constitution were along the lines of “Death knell for democracy!” in the Daily Mail and “The end of our nation!” in the Sun.

In that same article the Economist ventures its own assessment that the government’s description of the new constitution as a mere “tidying-up exercise” is “economical with the truth.” And that issue’s leader (subscription required) straight-out labels the draft constitution revealed this past week as “unacceptable,” and strongly (if only implicitly) urges its rejection by the British government and/or public: “a bad constitution would be worse than none at all.”

The mainstream daily press is not all that much more impressed. The Times terms the draft constitution “far from satisfactory,” although also “ambiguous,” while at the same time recognizing that it is hardly the final version, as many months of inter-governmental bargaining over its terms remain. Among other things, the Times objects to the empowerment of the European Commission to interpret many important principles of the document, such as “subsidiarity” and “proportionality” ; national parliaments could only dispute a particular interpretation of the Commission if enough of them petition to do so, and even then that would only mean an appeal to the European Court of Justice. Similarly, the Independent objects to what it calls the “Giscard revolution” (derived of course from former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of the Convention), namely the drastic reduction in the number of areas where a national veto will still be allowed to exist, and the corresponding shift of power to the European Parliament. The Daily Telegraph speaks of the draft constitution setting sweeping new powers for Europe, “with an elected president and overriding powers to legislate across the whole range of national life”; in a separate article, Telegraph correspondent Ambrose Evans-Pritchard claims that, although the draft dropped the “F-word” (that is, “federalism”), little has changed in the substance of what the convention proposes, and in fact “the articles released yesterday are . . . barely changed from the ‘unacceptable’ draft that [Peter Hain, Britain’s envoy to the convention] described last February as little short of a federalist putsch by Brussels insiders.”

In response there are those rushing to assure the public that it is not as bad as all that. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw weighs in in the Times: the new constitution does not mean the end of Britain as a nation state. In fact, Straw claims, many of the fiercest attacks on the draft constitution have to do with powers that the EU has already possessed for a long time – such as the superiority of European over national law, which the UK in fact agreed to (just as all past and future members must agree) when it entered the then-EEC in 1973. If critics want to abolish that, then they want to abolish the EU; in reality, though, we have already seen that the dire consequences many of these critics foresaw for British sovereignty arising out of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 have never come to pass. This new constitution “does not significantly change the relationship between the EU and its member sovereign nations.”

Then there is Danish journalist Lone Theils writing in the Independent that This is not a plot to end British civilisation. “How can you explain something that is as incomprehensible as the new EU constitution?” Theils asks, but then proceeds to try. She notes that, while the national populations in both the UK and Denmark seem to have an inherent skepticism – even a hostility – to the EU, Danish newspapers are friendly to it, while most of the English press is opposed. The new constitution is a vital effort to determine how the EU will function in its enlarged future, not a scheme to give Brussels more power to ban the use of the pint and the yard and regulate the curve of bananas, and both the Danish and British governments have to try to figure out how to convince their respective peoples of that.

There is also much other interesting commentary, even at this relatively early stage. Much has been made of the parallels between the European constitutional convention of 2002-2003 and the American one of 1789. University professor Jonathan Clark analyzes this in the Times, and not in an entirely reassuring manner: As he shows, American history can be interpreted as the original promises given for the maintenance of individual state sovereignty vis-à-vis the federal government being significantly eroded over time. And in the Guardian Timothy Garton Ash urges Tony Blair to seize the challenge, stop the mealy-mouth talk about a “tidying-up exercise,” and agree to a referendum in the summer of 2004 on the proposed European constitution. He needn’t assume that he would necessarily lose it; anyway, it’s time to determine who “wears the pants” (but that’s my own expression, not Garton Ash’s) when it comes to governing Britain – is it the Labour government, or is it the popular press magnates? (Once again, the Economist (subscription required) has another interesting commentary article on this question, entitled “A New Labour nightmare.”)

For that matter, now that the hornet’s nest has been stirred up over European institutions: What further purpose does the NATO alliance truly serve? None, finds British Conservative MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Daniel Hannan, writing in the Daily Telegraph. Now that the Soviet threat is gone, NATO basically functions as the European army whose creation within the framework of the EU so many European politicians, British and otherwise, oppose. If they were to examine fully the implications of their stance, Hannan asserts, they would also favor the dismantling of NATO in favor of ad hoc alliances between European national forces.

Another interesting aspect on the whole issue of the draft constitution is the radically-different perspectives on it in England and then on the Continent, claims Peter Ridell writing in the Times. (The Economist also mentions something similar in the article (subscription required) mentioned above.) While Britons are up in arms about attacks on their national sovereignty, it seems that on the Continent there is more interest in the “small country vs. large country” debate, namely in the way the draft allegedly tips the scales to the EU’s large countries – in its proposal for an elected president, and other things. True to the EuroSavant tradition, we’ll soon be going to the continental press to look into this.

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