Wasted (Brussels) Days and Wasted (Brussels) Nights (French View)*

Bad news for EU taxpayers, at least those who rather expect some concrete results from their representatives at European Union fora in return for the tax-euros they are paid. (Come on now – could anyone really be so naïve?) I know you recall that EU summit in Brussels that took place yesterday and the day before – Chirac also spoke for Germany during yesterday’s session, remember? (Covered in €S from both the French and German points-of-view.) That was nice, a great symbolic gesture and all that, but more pertinent might be the fact that little of note was actually accomplished. At least so the French on-line papers say.

Une réunion pour rien? (“A meeting for nothing?”) asks the Nouvel Observateur in its excellently-titled article Europeans Mark Time with Their Constitution, by Emmanuel Georges-Picot. Yep, it seems that the twenty-five heads-of-state/government (present EU members plus those joining in seven months, natch) convened once again, in Brussels, less than two weeks after they had already had the pleasure of each other’s company (that was 4 October, in Rome) – only to hear basically the same statements that they had delivered there in Italy. (Let me skip ahead briefly to the Le Monde article that I’ll discuss in detail later: it’s claimed there that Spanish premier José Maria Aznar actually repeated the same speech he had made in Rome, word-for-word!) Naturally, the same impasses remain in the matter of the draft Constitution, which is to say 1) The make-up of the Commission: Most small countries (not to include the Benelux) insist on one-country, one Commissioner; and 2) Voting: Spain and Poland continue to insist that the Nice arrangement, which gave them an advantageous voting deal, be preserved.

What to do? The pressure is on Italy here (specifically, on Berlusconi), not only because it holds the rotating EU presidency, but also because Berlusconi fondly hopes to be able to wrap up things by December so that a final-version Constitution can still be signed during that Italian EU presidency. (Don’t hold your breath.) Naturally, Silvio does have plan, namely to issue at the end of November an omnibus compromise proposal – perhaps in connection with a planned meeting of EU foreign ministers on the 28th and 29th. So don’t worry that nothing was decided about the Constitution here in Brussles, see; it was all about listening. (Actually, European Parliament President Pat Cox said that. But Mr. Cox, didn’t all that “listening” already happen on October 4?) The Nouvel Observateur also raises vague talk about scheduling yet another European summit, in Rome, before the end-of-presidency summit on 12/13 December, also in Rome.

Georges-Picot puts it well: “Hardly very excited by the Intergovernmental Conference business” (“Guère passionés . . . “), the assembled leaders spent a bunch of time on other things. Thursday afternoon was mainly occupied with a new proposal for a big economic initiative (basically, funding public works projects, twenty-nine of ’em; I’ve got additional material on that, that I hope to present to you in another entry). As mentioned before, Chirac and Schröder did manage to get away on Thursday (it seems that it was during lunch – maybe a big sacrifice for the Frenchman Chirac) to talk on the telephone with Vladimir Putin about the US’ Security Council resolution on Iraq. And everybody gave final approval to the Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet taking over from Wim Duisenberg as head of the European Central Bank. Yay.

To the Nouvel Observateur’s account Libération adds only a little. The “divergences are deep,” although, as Libération writer Yves Clarisse puts it, “the moment of truth – or of crisis – isn’t expected until the summit of 12-13 December.” (Well, crisis for Italy, maybe, since its dream of bringing the proceedings to a close during its presidency will be in grave danger unless there is significantly more progress on the Constitution by that point. On the one hand, there is a certain amount of time still available in the new year (under an Irish presidency); on the other hand, if there’s no or very little progress by December 12/13, that will be a very worrying sign as to whether a final-form Constitution is attainable at all.)

Clarrisse adds more detail to Silvio Berlusconi’s plans to fix things. It all sounds a bit trite: he intended at this Brussels summit to go around the table, to each of the twenty-five current/future members, to have them each give two or three “key points” where they wanted to see changes in the draft Constitution’s text. It also sounds a little bit strange, given that there’s an important bloc that basically wants the draft Constitution to be adopted in the form with which it came out of the Constitutional Convention last June – namely the original six founding members (that’s Germany, France, Berlusconi’s own Italy – yet he’s asking everyone for suggested changes! – and the Benelux. To this the Le Monde article also adds the UK – and that sounds strange to me, too.)

Wait, check that: Now “certain Benelux countries” (Libération won’t reveal which of the three) have put forth a compromise proposal on the question of the Commission size: Let there be 18 voting Commissioners, so that during any given Commission, two-thirds of EU members will have a voting Commissioner (assuming twenty-seven member-states), with one-third of the states gaining and losing their voting Commissioner with each new Commission. Well . . . for one thing, this disregards the desire by the Union’s big countries to retain their two Commissioners, if the consensus is to expand the Commission’s numbers anyway. More fundamentally, it also disregards my own point (discussed here) that the nationalities of European Commissioners shouldn’t matter – the Commission is best viewed as the EU’s Cabinet§, and Commissioners should be the best-qualified for the area of policy they are assigned, no matter where they happen to come from. I haven’t found this point anywhere else out there in the “real [on-line] world,” though – is it me who is insane?

Finally, there is the Le Monde article, which is different and interesting in its own right. First of all, the article takes up the “founding members” position, i.e. “just leave the draft Constitution alone and approve it.” You can tell, because in its introduction it emphasizes how the draft was “anyway the fruit of six months’ difficult [but] fruitful negotiations between representatives of governments, of national assemblies, and the European Parliament and Commission.”

Beyond this, Le Monde adds some important points – like the unease some are already starting to feel about the whole Constitution process. It quotes Luxembourgois premier Jean-Claude Juncker: “Today’s meeting didn’t bring any new element,” he is said to have “sighed.” “I’m a bit worried about how this affair is unfolding. Meeting after meeting, [and] the positions become more and more fixed.” What is more, together with Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt (and further supported by President Chirac, Le Monde says), Juncker has already started to attack Italy’s ideas about how to proceed to get out of this mess and attain agreement on a final-form text. “We’re not going to find a solution this way,” Verhofstadt is quoted as saying. (For that matter, Polish premier Leszek Miller is quoted as saying “I didn’t have the impression of any rapprochement of positions,” and “The name of the compromise is Nice” – in other words, you all had your “compromise” at Nice, and I don’t want to hear any talk of any more “compromise.”)

So it’s “no progress” at Brussels, folks, not on the main agenda item of the Constitution. And the natives are worried, and getting restless.

* But there will be no “Wasted (Brussels) Sprouts”! Clean your plate!

§ A “cabinet” with rather more authority than the the US Cabinet taken alone – and rather less authority than the US Cabinet taken together with the US President.

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