French Alarm over the EU Constitutional Convention

Returning to its non-English-language roots, EuroSavant today examines reactions to the unveiling of the draft EU constitution on the Continent (or “in Europe,” as certain British newspapers are wont to call that land mass stretching out on the other side of the Channel – as if they don’t happen to be part of it, legally, administratively, and even historically). And yes, loyal and long-standing €S readers, we first consider France. Surely there everyone is firmly on the side of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Constitutonal Convention’s president, and his draft document.

That turns out to be largely true, although there’s actually relatively little press treatment of the draft constitution. (France has other important things on its collective mind, notably the confrontation between the public sector unions and the government, which wants to cut back public sector pensions so that they are in line with less-generous private sector pensions.) The primary theme is worry (already!) that the effort to write a new EU constitution that ultimately can be accepted by all will fail. This was a concern even before people got to see this week what the convention had come up with; Libération had already published a gloomy article on May 16 (L’Europe se déchire sur sa Constitution – “Europe tears itself apart over its Constitution”). The convention delegates would seem to be wrestling with a mission impossible, the paper says, since they are expected within fifteen months to come up with solutions as to how the EU can escape internal paralysis when it expands to twenty-five members that member-governments have been unsuccessfully negotiating about for the last ten years. Convention president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had asked at the Athens EU summit last 16 April for an extension to the June 20 delivery-date; he was refused. Meanwhile, writes Libération, delegates have lowered themselves to the sort of cynical horse-trading that marked the Treaty of Nice of December, 2000: “the small countries have demanded equality with the large ones, the large ones have defended their pre-eminence and each institution has battled to increase its prerogatives.”

But, the newspaper notes, “the problem is that the Convention doesn’t have the right to fail. Lacking consensus, all hope of reform will be buried for a long time.” And it just can’t hand off the problem of getting to an agreement to the member governments. Libération quotes French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin: “It’s illusory to think that the intergovernmental conference [that is, the government-to-government bargaining over the Constitution, once the Convention has delivered its final proposal on 20 June] will be able to succeed in what the Convention has failed to do.”

Now the four parts of the draft constitution have been released, one might have the impression might be that the Convention is proceeding under full sail. But that impression would be a mistake, writes Le Monde. In fact, things are breaking down, because Convention president Giscard d’Estaing is facing a revolt from even within his own “praesidium” (that’s the exclusive sub-group of Convention delegates with whom he has done all the heavy thinking) over new institutional arrangements. In plain English, that means plain numbers: how many commissioners each country is allotted, how many representatives to the European Parliament, how many to the Council of Ministers. With ten new members due to join next year, it was among the Convention’s tasks to come up with new numbers. But certain countries managed to gain for themselves at the Nice summit rather better representation than their national population would justify, and so are blocking Convention efforts to put things on a more proportional basis. Spain, and so the Spanish delegates to the Convention in particular, are proving especially intransigent.

Then, a few days later Le Monde published an article entitled Les appels se multiplient pour sauver la Convention sur l’avenir de l’Europe – “The calls are multiplying to save the Convention on the future of Europe.” “The Convention on the future of Europe presided over by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has three weeks to give Europe a Constitution,” France’s newspaper-of-record writes, “and all of Brussels has been seized with a feeling of panic.” The prospect is looming alarmingly that, by the Thessaloniki summit of 20-21 June, “Europe will have shown that she is incapable of reforming herself.”

The problems are many: in addition to the Spanish stubborness already mentioned, there is the small country vs. big country dispute and Britain’s insistence on retaining a veto on fiscal matters as well as European foreign and security policy. “I find it difficult to see that any consensus will emerge within the Convention,” reports one diplomat. “It needs an external stimulus.” To try to give it that external stimulus, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has proposed that the six original EEC members (Benelux, France, Germany, and Italy) meet to arrive at a common position to break the logjam – not to present the rest of the Convention with anything that looks like a fait accompli, but rather with a reasonable set of compromise proposals which will have the prestige of all of the EU’s oldest members behind them.

Meanwhile, Giscard d’Estaing will be making use of his speech today at Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen (in Germany), where he is scheduled to receive the Charlemagne price as “European of the Year,” to warn European authorities and opinion-shapers of the threat of failure. From the looks of things, the leading lights of the French press have already gotten the message.

Of course, the situation is not at all helped by the furore which the release of the draft constitution has sparked in the UK, the subject of yesterday’s EuroSavant entry. Some of the French press takes the trouble to cast its eye on this, such as Le Figaro. It cites chief British Convention delegate Peter Hain’s satisfaction that the word “federal” was erased from the draft text, which according to Hain means that there is no danger of any “European super-state” emerging in the new Constitution. However, most other Englishmen remain rather less than totally reassured on this point, the paper reports, even in view of the retention of the veto in fiscal and foreign affairs that the Labour government insists will stay – and which, as we have seen, French commentators fear could shipwreck the whole Convention.

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