An Interim IGC Evaluation: Buy Your Dollars Now!

As varied as the individual details may have been, one theme clearly predominates the preceding accounts on this website, from the French, Dutch, and the Czech press, of the progress of the EU draft Constitution Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) so far. And that is, of course, that there has been virtually none – indeed, that there is even considerable dissatisfaction over the process currently being used to try to gain common agreement on an EU Constitution.

Oh, there has been one stratagem used already to try to achieve that goal of across-the-board agreement. That was what you might call the “bull-rush” approach adopted in the run-up to the beginning of the IGC on 4 October, generally by the EU founding members, but especially by Germany, France, and Italy. “Don’t anyone touch the draft, don’t push for any changes,” went that line, and these countries cited at least two arguments in support: 1) If you start allowing even one change to be considered, then of course any change can be tabled and considered, and the IGC will never reach its end; and 2) There’s no need for any changes at this point anyway, because that draft Constitution is the product of more than a year’s deliberation by the Constitutional Convention, composed of representatives from all present and possible future member-states. Those delegates spent those sixteen months arguing, haggling, and bargaining about what a Constitution for the EU should contain. If you’re tempted to try to have changes made at this late point, at the IGC, then may we ask what were your national delegates doing when the particular subject for debate came up under the Convention?

Nice try, but it’s obvious that the attempted “bull-rush” has failed utterly. Indeed, although argument # 1 seems plausible (we might be seeing it happen before our very eyes), you could easily dispute #2. It’s easy to imagine, for example, how national delegates to the Convention would cease their opposition to something, but only temporarily, in effect waiting to kick it “upstairs” for resolution, at the IGC, by their political bosses, i.e. actual heads-of-government who have much more weight to throw around in inter-EU deliberations. In any case, it was clear even before October 4 that this wasn’t going to work, as at least one large group of “small states” (again, which included both present and future EU member-states) had met in Prague a few weeks before to coordinate their positions. There they made it clear that, no matter what top German and French political leaders were saying, they were certainly going to press for some changes once the IGC actually opened, by gum!

They certainly did, and at this point the four formal IGC negotiating sessions have at least served to make clear where the main fault-lines currently lie in the negotiations. These certainly won’t be any surprise to regular €S readers, so to sketch them briefly: 1) There’s a dispute over the make-up of the European Commission, with (most) small countries insisting that each country have a voting Commissioner at all times, while the founding states would prefer to keep Commission membership restricted, the better to preserve its ability to function; and 2) There’s a dispute over arrangements over what should constitute the “qualified majority vote” in the European Council for resolutions and EU legislation to pass. In particular, Spain and Poland seem determined to hang on doggedly to the advantageous vote-weightings they got for themselves at the December, 2000, Nice European Council. Then there are the more minor disputes, such as the insistence by some member-states – such as Poland, again – that there be some explicit reference to Christianity in the final Constitution’s preamble.

Unfortunately, “minor” disputes can easily turn “major,” due to the major consideration applicable here: since the final result has to be approved unanimously, every state has a veto. In this light, the virtually complete lack of progress in resolving issues at the four IGC sessions so far is even more disappointing: So far to go, yet such little distance covered! What is more, the Italian plan for achieving agreement – namely bilateral consultations between the Italian foreign ministry and the other EU states, resulting in a “comprehensive” compromise proposal at the end of November, to be discussed (and, of course, possibly modified) at the EU foreign ministers’ meeting of the 28th/29th and then approved at the Rome summit of 12/13 December – seems but a pipe-dream.

(In the meantime there may or may not occur that “informal” summit for mid-November that Berlusconi has been advocating – and other EU leaders have been pleading against. But even if it does happen, what will it matter? The way things are proceeding now, it’s clear that all that heads-of-state/government do at such affairs is waste time.)

In a twisted sort of way, it’s good to hear that at least some EU leaders are already warning that the IGC will not achieve its December objective for wrapping things up: Dutch premier Balkenende, for example: “If we keep on having these sorts of talking-rounds, we won’t get there”; or the famously-laconic Finns quietly calculating what is the absolute, worst-case negotiations deadline (which seems to be May; all of this is taken from my earlier review of the Dutch press). The thing is, what has triggered my present bout of worrying is going over again this October 4 article from the Dutch Volkskrant (European Union Fearful of That One Black Sheep), about the referendum process that will follow the IGC (if it is successful) in many, if not all, EU lands. Just one “No” vote in any of those referenda on the Constitution will pose a big, big problem. “Then the Constitution, in terms of international law, is dead,” says Stefaan de Rynck, spokesman for the European Commission. (It’s true that most of these referenda will be “consultative,” meaning that the government is in effect just asking its electorate for a non-binding opinion – but just imagine a legislature going on to approve something as significant for national law as the EU Constitution after it has been disapproved by the voters!) What may be worse, according to the article, “In Brussels one barely dares to think about what may happen if one or more countries votes against.” The (unnamed) Volkskrant correspondent is glad to step in, however, and do these bureaucrats’ high-paying jobs for them; the rest of the article speaks of a “solution à la Ireland” (i.e. asking again, with a second referendum and perhaps some cosmetic changes to the Constitution in the meantime to enable voters in the renegade state to vote “Yes” and still save face), or the “black sheep” solution, which is namely that the state(s) voting against thereupon consent(s) simply to withdraw from the EU.

It would also behoove the rest of us to be willing to stare the “worst-case” scenario in the face and think about what might happen then, especially considering how likely a scenario that is. Also realize, however, that all of this is in a sense this just the flip-side to unprecedented decades of peace and prosperity that Europe has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War, and of which the EEC/EC/EU is still the crowning emblem. You say you want to close down these summits, meetings, intergovernmental conferences, to tell all these chattering diplomatic classes to shut up and cease their expensive junkets to Rome and other exotic places, to ram through some decisions for the good of all, without any more useless discussion? Actually, Europe did operate that way prior to 1945; history records this small but generously-populated, temperately-climed peninsula sticking out from the much-larger Asian land-mass as the bloodiest area on Earth, in terms of man deliberately killing and injuring fellow man, for many hundreds of years on end. The depredations of Napoleon and Hitler, for example – they were “no-nonsense” and led to decisive results, until they were overpowered by even greater military efforts which implemented equally-decisive (counter-)results.

Europe doesn’t want any more of that (even, it seems, when “decisive measures” are called for in places like Iraq, or Iran, or North Korea, or – back in the past – Rwanda). But that’s unfortunate, in a way, since sometimes “decisive measures” are what is needed to forge an enduring Constitution. Look at the American example: A decisive American legal transformation in the 19th century, highlighted by the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, raised the power of the federal government over that of the component states, just as increasing industrialization and technological development was making such a political shift desirable. That this legal transformation managed to occur in the first place was precisely because it happened at a time when those who might have voted against it – i.e. the southern states – were not even present in the Congress since they were still under occupation by federal troops in the post-Civil War. In a similar way, just imagine how much faster and decisively this whole EU Constitution process could proceed if not everyone’s opinion needed to be heard, if not everyone needed to be persuaded to agree.

Actually, there was a very real opportunity to accomplish precisely this, but I suppose those in charge were simply not tough-minded (i.e. Machiavellian) enough to carry it out. I’m referring to holding the Constitutional Convention and the IGC processes without the participation of the ten future members (hey, they are after all still not members, not yet). Instead, the eventual Constitution (approved by those who currently are members) would be presented to the electorates of the candidate states for approval, bundled into their EU accession referenda. All of this would not have to be on a strictly “take-it-or-leave-it” basis; there could be as much consultation with the candidate member-states as desired. Still, the important thing in this scenario would be that there is plenty of room to say “It looks like we can’t agree. Well, we’ll just present the Constitution, written up our way, to your electorate and let them decide whether they want to accept it, or whether they’d just as soon stay out of the EU.” I bet the whole constitutional process would have been a lot more swift and successful in such a case. (Frankly, sometimes it seems that there would be a lot more progress had this treatment been reserved exclusively for Poland!)

Still, that’s not the way it is, the EU has insisted on being fair and including everyone, with both present and future interests in the Union. The result, unfortunately, is possibly that people will simply not be able to agree, will not be able to compromise sufficiently, and that the Constitution project will fail. We have to recognize this as a very real possibility, together with its corollaries, e.g. the possible withdrawal of one or more member-states, a relapse to the unsatisfactory Nice Treaty as the EU’s latest legal basis. One thing is certain in such a case: after adding ten new members-states (which will happen whether there is a new Constitution or not) yet failing to adapt its mechanisms to its greatly-increased size, the EU is certain to suffer a collapse of confidence in its collective ability to perform its fundamental function of ensuring peace and economic prosperity for its citizens.

That confidence is already being nibbled away by the shaky allegiance to the euro’s Stability Pact being shown by both of the Union’s biggest and most-influential member-states, together with what is turning out to be the utter inability of the EU as a collective organization to enforce that Pact. (I’ve covered this subject in the past, most recently here, but I’d refer you to Edward Hugh’s excellent entry at Fistful of Euros for a more recent update. Also – please pay close attention – recall my previous argument, here, that, in and of itself, the Stability Pact is not worth enforcing! It’s even ridiculous! It’s just that as a symbol of a European Union in which everyone follows the rules, it is indeed very much worth enforcing. You could write a novel about such an absurd situation – but unfortunately Lewis Carroll passed away a long time ago!) So far, other than some smaller-state governments like the Dutch, Austrian, and Finnish, no one is much bothered by this, least of all the currency markets where the euro continues to gain ground against the US dollar. The prospect of an EU without a new Constitution – and, more than that, seemingly without the ability in an expanded Union of twenty-five to manage enough consensus to push through needed institutional reforms – should make everyone finally sit up and take notice.

If you’ve got euros, and need dollars, buy them now, while they’re still cheap. Believe me, I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

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