Approaching the Naples IGC – French View

We’re back “in the groove” now, as you’d expect we would be, since there are big things going on. Yesterday and today in Naples there has taken place a meeting of EU foreign minsters constituting the latest step in the process of formal negotiations over the proposed European Constitution collectively termed the “Intergovernmental Conference” (IGC). The French press covers the run-up to this meeting well. (Coverage of what is actually accomplished – if anything – will probably be available by Monday.)


So: Where are we now with that IGC process, after all the inter-governmental communication and meetings that have gone on since the last summit. (Which happened in mid-October in Brussels; you remember, that was the one where Jacques Chirac filled in for Gerhard Schröder, representing German interests as well as French, on that summit’s second day. €S covered that from the French, the Dutch, and the Czech viewpoints.) Le Figaro offers an excellent guide, in The Principal Points Still At Issue. Here we meet our old friends: the dispute over the distribution of voting-weights in the Council of Ministers, for example. Poland and Spain still are holding out for the disproportionately-advantageous system (for them) of the Nice Treaty, while the proposed Constitution envisages something a bit simpler. And we meet our other old friend, namely the question of the composition of the European Commission, whether it’s to be “one-country-one-voting-Commissioner” (or maybe, for some countries, two) or rather the arrangement proposed by the draft Constitution that keeps everything at fifteen voting Commissioners. (There are twenty now, by the way.)

(A quick explanation of the Convention’s proposed “simpler” Council voting system, which I don’t think we have yet actually discussed. That provides that a qualified majority on the Council of Ministers for the approval of a given measure would be gained by a “double majority” vote: it would have to be approved by a majority of the sheer number of states (so that’s at least 13 out of the future 25), and those states voting in favor would collectively have to represent at least 60% of the EU’s population. Spain and Poland don’t like this arrangement principally because it reduces their weight in combining with other states to form a “blocking minority” ensuring that one of these two conditions (principally the second) fails.)

Then there’s another long-lost friend, which hasn’t featured in past discussions too much: the question as to whether the new Constitution is to refer anywhere specifically to Europe’s Christian heritage. Plenty of states (e.g. France, Belgium) against, plenty of states (e.g. Poland, Slovakia) strongly for.

But there are a couple of new issues here, too. Like how to amend that Constitution (presuming, of course, it ultimately gets ratified in the first place). Instead of “double majority” here, we have “double unanimity”: as the draft now stands, any amendments could only be passed first by unanimous approval from the Council, and then unanimous ratification by all member-states (i.e. by their parliaments; in many cases, this would also mean national referenda). You can judge the applicability of this counter-example as you will, but let me offer that amendments to the US Constitution must be proposed by a vote of at least two-thirds of both Houses of Congress (there is also the option to call a convention, if two-thirds of state legislatures call for it), and then ratified by at least three-fourths of state legislatures or ratifying conventions. The proposal for the European Constitution, as Le Figaro writer “A.B.” writes, “risks engraving [that] Constitution in marble.” The European Commission, European Parliament, and current EU president Italy want at least to soften the requirement for proposing amendments, to that of a “qualified majority” of the Council. But Le Figaro doesn’t think that even this has much of a chance of being accepted. (And that may be because, as Le Monde reports here – Member-States Maintain the Rule of Unanimity for Amendments to the Future Constitution – EU foreign ministers met on 18 November in Brussels and, by majority vote, essentially rejected any deviation from “double unanimity.”)

Finally, there are disputes over changes the draft Constitution envisages for the EU budget process. For one thing, the European Parliament would have a larger role, being required to vote final approval for any EU budget. Plus, budget votes on the Council would be by qualified majority vote (i.e. no need for unanimity) as of 2013. There are plenty of countries opposed to both of these proposals, and to another one which would give the European Commission greater power in the matter of dealing with violators of the Growth and Stability Pact – countries could no longer refuse to obey Commission “recommendations” as to how to bring their budget deficits back under the allowed 3%-of-GDP limit.


Which countries do you think might object? Where have we heard about all that recently? Why, just earlier this week, when both Germany and France at that meeting of European finance ministers escaped any penalties for their three-years-in-a-row violations of that 3% deficit limit. That timing is unfortunate; what Le Monde termed (in A Hardening of Positions [Crispation] Around the European Constitution at Naples) the “psychodrama” around the breaking of the Stability Pact risks complicating the negotiations at Naples. For, after all, why even take negotiations around a inter-state treaty (which is all the “Constitution” really is – it’s a “constitutional treaty”) seriously, when certain states – who happen to be the biggest and most economically powerful in the European Union – have now demonstrated their willingness to go against treaty provisions solemnly agreed with their European partners if they don’t suit at the time? Le Monde goes into further detail in the article Crisis Could Prevent Accord on the Constitution; the behavior of France and Germany towards the Stability Pact has revived the distrust of the EU’s small countries towards these two. Among the more immediate effects of this, the Convention’s original proposal to trim down the European Commission to 15 voting commissioners is dead: no small country will now be willing to give up “its” Commissioner just to further the Commission’s more-efficient operation, or for any other cause. What’s more, it has seemingly also hardened the positions in favor of Nice Treaty voting-arrangements of Poland and Spain; Polish premier Leszek Miller has warned against allowing a “diktat” over the Constitution imposed by France and Germany, while Spanish premier José Maria Aznar was quoted as saying “It is evident that that decision [the Stability Pact affair] will have consequences at the IGC negotiations. If one can decide, as was the case, on nothing less than the suspension of a treaty at a meeting of ministers, you can imagine the importance that is attached to voting modalities [i.e. the voting-weight dispositions at issue].” And the head of the liberal group in the European Parliament, the Englishman Graham Watson, foresaw even more far-reaching effects, namely on ratification: “Citizens can wonder just what their interest is in agreeing on new rules, if the large countries trample on them without any consideration at the first difficulty.”

At any rate, the explicit aims for this “conclave” (as it is being called) of foreign ministers in Naples are not as ambitious as they might be. Those three “old friends” of ours from the Le Figaro summary the foreign ministers are not even going to address: that’s voting weights on the Council, how many Commissioners there should be, and whether the Constitution should explicitly recognize Europe’s Christian heritage. Instead, the aim is at least to clear away some of the less-contentious issues, and to that end the Italian government distributed last Tuesday compromise proposals on these issues (but again, not on the three named above, considered too difficult to resolve without the direct participation of heads of government at the Brussels summit of 12/13 December). It’s still an ambitious agenda: the status and role of the future EU minister for foreign affairs, defense, how to organize the future rotation of presidents of the Council of Ministers (i.e. the role Italy holds now) – and, of course, those other issues Le Figaro listed, namely what should be required to amend the Constitution, and the division of powers and responsibilities when it comes to budgets and economic roles. And there is supposed to be another thing different at the Naples “conclave” that has been lacking at IGC meetings so far: true debate. According to Commission spokesman Stefaan de Rynck, quoted in Le Monde (At Naples, Twenty-Five Ministers Search for Agreement on the Constitution), Naples will feature “a juxtaposition of national positions,” including those showing “little European spirit.” Boo! Hiss!


That’s not good enough for Le Figaro, as writer Luc de Barochez makes clear in his commentary piece, A Conference More Harmful Than Useful. The IGC has gone nowhere so far, de Barochez writes, and there’s no reason to believe it will make any further progress at Naples – or, for that matter, at the summit in Brussels in two weeks’ time. “At best, the IGC will produce an insipid version of the project brought to completion by the Convention.” At worst, he writes, the whole process could well fail. And that would be a catastrophe. Ten new countries will join the EU in May, new Constitution or not. That new Constitution was explicitly supposed to be produced to ensure that the EU could still function even after its membership grew from fifteen to twenty-five; as de Barochez writes, “How can we imagine that the Union can be manageable at twenty-five, when it barely makes any progress with fifteen member-states as it uses rules which were originally written for six?”

All of this should have been foreseen. In fact, it was foreseen: the EU established its Constitutional Convention at the summit in Laeken in 2001 precisely because everyone knew that trying to come up with a Constitution using the old techniques of summits of heads-of-government – complete with the inevitable confrontations at meetings lasting way into the next morning – would not work. So it set up the Convention, presided over by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and let it do its work and produce a draft – yet now the EU is ignoring its previous insight and dragging things back into the world of late-night summits. “The defects of an IGC are widely known. First of all, the rule of unanimity stifles all innovation. Then, it is difficult to ask of governments to reorganize a system which involves their own power. ‘That’s like asking the turkey to prepare Christmas,’ was the comment of one Socialist deputy to the European Parliament.” The solution de Barochez suggests, apparently, is that the EU should have let the Convention go to work, under the proviso that whatever it produced would be guaranteed to be accepted. An interesting idea – but also far-fetched. It’s hard to see that ever happening for what is, after all, the very Constitution (or OK, “Constitutional Treaty”) of the EU.

Then there is the quite different view from the Left, from L’Humanité in a commentary (Crazy Week for the European Schizophrenics) written by Okba Lamrani. Lamrani also sees problems for the Constitution being caused by the controversy over the breaking of the Stability Pact – but, in his view, too bad for the Constitution, then! In a France and Germany which have rates of unemployment of 9.8% and 9.9% respectively, he writes, breaking that Stability Pact was precisely the right thing to do. In fact, the Stability Pact is nothing but “the false nose of the ECB,” that is, the European Central Bank. That Bank enjoys political independence as it pursues its one and only goal: to ensure price stability. And that is precisely the problem: it is mandated to protect that price stability – that is, “the euro must remain the guarantee of the famous ROE (Return on equity,” i.e. to the capitalist class) – while no one in government is obliged to care much about creating the employment that the lower classes need. And now, in the wake of the Stability Pact’s breach by France and Germany, efforts are underway to write new clauses into the European Constitution to make that impossible in the future. Clearly, Lamrani writes, “under pain of schizophrenia, one therefore cannot be for employment – as Jean-Pierre Raffarin [the French premier] and Pierre Moscovici [the French European affairs minister] say they are – and at the same time for the constitutional project.”

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