Countdown to the Brussels Summit II: Tart Flemish Observations

Bernard Bulcke, writing for Belgium’s main Flemish-language newspaper De Standaard, of which he is editor, makes some interesting observations in an editorial sub-titled Europe and Its Unknown Harbor (subscription required) regarding the whole attempt to give the European Union something at least approximating a Constitution. (I use the article’s sub-title because its title is straightforward and boring.)

(By the way, if you want intelligent comment in Dutch about that upcoming Brussels summit, you’ll have to look to Flanders. The Dutch press is all in a tizzy because Crown Princess Máxima just had her baby, a girl, who is now second-in-line to the Dutch throne behind her father, Crown Prince Willem Alexander. There has even been a poem written by unofficial Dutch poet-laureate Gerrit Komrij; its first line is “There is a little child. Everyone is happy.” Let’s hope Premier Balkenende and his staff can regain their focus on Brussels and the draft Constitution in time.)

First of all, that “unknown harbor” refers to a saying by the Roman philosopher Seneca: a ship that doesn’t know its harbor of destination will always encounter a headwind. (Let me cite here for amplification another great philosopher and musician, one George Harrison: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”) Philippe de Schoutheete, a former ambassador for Belgium to the European Union, has recently written a book that uses that quotation to point out that the member-states of the EU have never really determined their harbor of destination, i.e. what sort of Europe they want to build. That’s why the process of building it has recently become so difficult. But Bulcke adds a further twist: they haven’t determined their “harbor of destination” because they haven’t dared to ask each other, out of fear for the differing, probably mutually-contradictory answers they would probably come up with. “Better to leave the question unanswered,” Bulcke writes, “than to make a fuss.” If true, this does not bode well for this next weekend, when certain hard decisions will have to be taken on just what sort of Europe member-states want to build; it’s been apparent for some time, in an implicit way, that there are widely-different opinions about this, but next weekend is probably too late to finally make this explicit.


Bulcke also has interesting remarks to make about the process which was supposed to make this latest quest for a fundamental addition to the body of EU law (the acquis communautaire) different: the Convention. Yes, this time progress in fundamental European law was to be entrusted to delegates from national parliaments and the European Parliament and Commission, rather than to national governments negotiating with each other late into the night, at what was supposed to be a summit meeting’s final moments. These interested and responsible parties would have the resources and the time (they ultimately took 17 months) to think about it and do things right.

But it hasn’t turned out that way. Sure, the delegates took that time and finally submitted their draft Constitution, but since then those same national governments have stepped in again to take control of the process. They have taken that text and modified it the way they want; and the Convention delegates find themselves unable to do anything about this than gathering together to publicly complain, which is basically what their meeting in Brussels last Friday (covered here in €S) was all about. This recalls the comment by Le Figaro writer Luc de Barochez, reported here, that they way things should have happened is that member-states should have pre-committed to accept whatever sort of Constitutional Treaty emerged out of the Convention. But I found that idea far-fetched in my review then, and I still do so now.

Finally, Bulcke makes mention of the idea of France and Germany, if the IGC breaks down in failure, simply sailing off into the night with like-minded member-states that also wanted to adopt the Convention’s Constitution with no changes (mainly the other original EEC members, plus a few others), to form an avant-garde which could threaten the break-up of the Union. But does even this ship know where it is sailing? Bulcke asks. Towards a strong euro and fiscal responsibility, for example? Then what about the French and German behavior over the Growth and Stability Pact?

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