“Hands off my draft constitution!” says Giscard

With the presentation last Friday to the EU summit in Thessaloniki of the draft EU Constitution, the work of the European Convention headed by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing came to an end. Now the text is in the hands of the national governments of EU member-states, which will formally begin negotiations over changes to that draft at the EU Intergovernmental Conference to begin in the middle of next October.

Still, there is already a wide range of judgments over the quality of the handiwork of M. Giscard d’Estaing and his fellow 104 Convention delegates. Let me briefly step out of EuroSavant’s “non-English-language” remit to mention the Economist’s verdict: “Europe’s constitutional convention has produced a lamentable piece of work.” Yes, the august London newsweekly advocates throwing out the Convention’s draft and starting again from scratch. Supposedly the document fails to clearly assign those powers an enlarged EU is to have and those it is not to have, the way a good constitution ought to. Rather, it enumerates “competences” in a vague manner that simply leaves the way open for them all to be grabbed by EU institutions eventually. It neglects the principle of “subsidiarity” which the Convention was specifically charged to protect and develop by the 2001 EU summit at Laeken. All in all, rather than put an end to “constitutional revolution,” i.e. uncertainty about what the basic ground-rules of an expanded European Union are to be, it just perpetuates it by leaving so many things to be cleared up later. “The text is sound on points that are relatively unimportant,” the Economist claims, but “Everything that is crucial it gets wrong.”

There’s food for thought, but M. Giscard d’Estaing himself would disagree. In fact, he’s advocating that the draft constitution that his Convention came up with, after 16 months of deliberation and argument, be basically left alone. According to Le Monde, he made that plea in an address before the assembled heads of state at Thessaloniki. “We have sought the best point of equilibrium. So I ask you to take care that breaking that equilibrium by calling into question its terms doesn’t endanger the solidity of the edifice.” He had in mind here in particular one of the Convention’s leading sore points, namely which areas of policy would still require unanimity among member-states – and thus could have proposals vetoed by any one of them – and which could be decided on through some sort of majority voting. He was quoted in a companion Le Monde article as asserting that “We [the Convention] went to the limit of what was mutually acceptable,” in shifting policy areas to majority-voting status. His intention was to warn off the many who feel that the really serious things – like tax policy, and common foreign and security policy – should be handled by majority voting in the future EU. Don’t try to insist on this, he was saying, because the opposition to such ideas out there is so strong that you’ll wind up destroying the consensus that the Convention took pains to achieve, and so destroy any chance that the new constitution will ever be approved by all twenty-five governments.

On the other hand, the first article (the one that reported on his presentation before the Thessaloniki summit) did discuss one area where Giscard felt further changes to the draft constitution were warranted: in the make-up of the European Commission. Right now the Commission has twenty members consisting of one member for each of the present fifteen member-states, plus a second member for the “big” EU states (Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain). In the future every country wants its own representative on the Commission, but that means twenty-five members (even if you take the significant step of stripping the “big” countries of their second commissioner), and there simply aren’t twenty-five meaningful portfolios to divy up. So the compromise written into the draft constitution is that the number of portfolios will be reduced to a much-more-reasonable fifteen, each with one commissioner, AND there will be fifteen additional commissioners (“shadow commissioners”? “commissioners-in-waiting”?) with offices and salaries but nothing much to do but wait until the music-chairs tune stops playing once again, at regular intervals, and everyone shifts roles so that “shadow” commissioners become active and vice-versa. At least that way, with a total of thirty commissioners, you can give each country its one and still give the five “big” countries their second representatives.

Sound ridiculous? I agree with you, and so does Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Then why is that “solution” in the draft text? Clearly, because Giscard was the President but not the Dictator of the Convention, and on this point he was unable to dissuade most Convention delegates from their determination that each of their countries would get a member on the Commission, no matter what sort of impractical results that insistence might lead to. So he’s openly lobbying member-state governments to clean up the mess for him and make that change during the Intergovernmental Conference. But there goes the consistency in his “don’t you touch my draft” stand.

In all, it’s natural that Valéry Giscard d’Estaing would have a lot that is interesting to say about the important draft document that the Constitutional Convention that he headed has just delivered. But it might also be informative to listen to the views of another Frenchman who has also had an enormous influence on the EU, from his days back as Commission President, Jacques Delors. L’Express grants us that pleasure with an interview given just as the Thessaloniki summit was convening, Entre bonheur et doute – “Between Happiness and Doubt.” “Happiness,” because he is glad to welcome the ten new members into the EU, back to Europe, as it were – “it is banal to repeat that Europe should not stop at the old Cold War frontiers.” Yet, as he recalls in the interview, Delors was one of the main proponents of the idea that, if the EU was to enlarge to welcome new member-states, it would also have to “deepen,” in the sense of reforming its institutions so that, with twenty-five or more members, it wouldn’t become one big ungovernable mess. Or as he puts it in the interview, “Tidy up the house before welcoming new occupants.”

That is where “doubt” comes in, and mostly because of the timing. Enlargement has sped on ahead (although it has to be recalled that, for a while, the formerly Communist states of Eastern Europe were to have entered the EU by the year 2000), while deepening, the “tidying-up of the house,” has not kept pace. In this he includes the enlargement to include Sweden, Finland, and Austria that occurred at the beginning of 1995; the Treaties of Amsterdam (1996) and of Nice (2000) were at least as much of an attempt to deal with the changed reality within the EU brought about by the accession of those three members, much less the wave of new members (which turned out to be ten) that was expected in the near future from (mostly) the ex-Communist states of Central/Eastern Europe. And now the process which is supposed to give the EU a new constitution has once again trailed enlargement. Indeed, it seems overwhelmingly likely that all ten new member-states will already be in the EU by the time it is put up for ratification, so that each one of these ten will have the chance to gravely wound it by refusing to ratify.

By the way, Delors does not belong to that group disappointed at the failure to include fiscal and foreign affairs among the areas of policy to be decided by majority voting. He lists foreign policy, defense, as well as economic and monetary policy as areas beyond what a EU of twenty-five can realistically hope to manage. Better, he says, to permit the creation of “avant-gardes” in these areas, allowed to go further than many other member-states might be willing to go, in structures determined and allowed by EU basic law, which must be open to other member-states when they are ready to join – much like the way the adoption of the euro is being managed, it must be said. I believe this has been called elsewhere “variable-speed” or “variable-geometry” Europe, although Delors doesn’t use these expressions per se in his remarks.

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