The European Constitution – French Counter-Point

The issue of that proposed European Constitution – remember that thing? – simply will not go away, probably because it is said to be essential to ensure that the EU can continue to function after that 67% expansion (15 expanding by 10) that is due to happen on the upcoming May 1. Indeed, we’ve already passed the point at which it is inevitable that, even in the best-case scenario, that Constitution won’t be fully adopted and in-place until some time after the EU has expanded to 25. Fortunately, as The Economist recently reported (subscription required), some signs have arisen recently to give hope that that agreement over the Constitution and its adoption will happen sooner rather than later.

“Fortunately”? Actually, it’s useful to keep in mind the fact that the whole constitutional process is not just a matter of smoothing out the potholes and bumps along the way to a common goal everyone can agree is worth attaining. No, some folks out there just wish the whole thing would be canned, once and for all. Among these is in fact The Economist, which last June supplemented its article on Where to File Europe’s new constitution (subscription required) with a starkly eloquent cover-illustration (at least in its European edition): a filled-to-overflowing trash can. But The Economist is the English-language press, of course; and you rather look mainly to EuroSavant for the foreign-language press (although long-time readers will know that I dip into the British press on occasion).

No problem: There’s plenty of anti-EuroConstitution rhetoric there, too, especially if you want to be lazy (OK, I admit it) and head straight to the tried-and-true anti-Euro talking-shop as the housewife heads out for cuts of meat to her local butcher-shop. I refer here, of course, to Le Monde Diplomatique, the monthly sister publication to the leading French daily Le Monde.

GET READY FOR CONTROVERSY

Le Monde Diplomatique is certainly serious and learned, don’t get me wrong, in the best French tradition – it’s just that the opinions you find there inevitably will tend toward the anti-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalization. But, after all, it’s good to keep tabs on the “other side,” so to speak, meaning those with whose outlook on the world you usually disagree; occasionally they may startle you and actually be right (!), and maybe even convincingly change your own point-of-view in some respect. (Although I’m rather less-interested in political criticism not grounded in what you could call the Western rational, scientific tradition – opinions issued from the Al-Azhar religious university in Cairo, for example, or certainly the insane ravings of Osama bin-Laden types.) Just consider my fatal-flaw weakness in the past for L’Humanité, the usually-entertaining organ of the French Communist Party!

All of this is by way of introduction to Europe, Shuddering on the Edge of the Abyss: A Special Notebook on Europe, a special collection of articles on recent EU history (together with an extensive supplement of “fundamental texts,” mainly the various European Treaties themselves) to be found on Le Monde Diplomatique’s on-line edition. If you want to do some serious research on the EU, and can read French, this is definitely a “must-see.” But the focus today is upon what you could call the “cover article” to the collection, written by LM Diplomatique editor Anne-Cécile Robert – truly an eloquent disquisition on what is wrong with Europe’s current constitutional process that brings up some painful truths. Committed pro-Europeans, if you prefer to remain in your state of blissful illusion, read no further!

THE IMMATURE GROWN-UP

“The European Union is an adult organization that is nonetheless very immature,” Robert writes. It seems incapable of truly discussing its future in any very profound way – like, what “common project” really remains in an EU that is becoming more and more heterogeneous? Instead, it prefers to avoid these hard issues by getting bogged down in questions of petty political detail (like how many votes for each country, exactly, on the Council of Ministers), and also by what Robert calls “escapes to the front” (les fuites en avant), meaning basically going ahead and enlarging membership massively come hell or high water, whether the EU is institutionally ready for such a step or not.

Early in her article, Robert focuses on the EU’s referenda technique for getting subsequent changes to the corpus of European treaties approved, and it does seem reasonable than any impartial observer would conclude that this has serious problems. Robert poses the attitude EU authorities take when presenting issues in referenda thusly: “This new treaty is no good, but we have to adopt it or Europe will not survive.” In the same vein, one can also recall the practice of doing referenda over – cf. in Denmark over the Maastricht Treaty, and more recently in Ireland over the Nice Treaty – until those unruly pupils in the countries concerned finally come up with the “right” answer in their voting. Perplexed by all this insubordination, those at the lofty summit of EU authority look down and conclude “We’ve got to bring the ‘construction of Europe’ closer to its inhabitants,” as if this were all just a matter of a PR strategy gone bad. How about offering an authentic vision instead, Robert responds, a “civilising project that is clearly identifiable and which can distinguish the EU from the shapeless dross of the liberal – and warlike – process of globalization?” Something that could justify all the concessions of their own national sovereignty that European have consented to (at least those of the six original EEC states) over the course of fifty years?

WAITER, IS THAT A HAIR IN MY EURO-SOUP?

Instead, we have this proposed Constitution which, Robert writes, “arrived literally as a hair in the soup.” (Ugh! Is this a French expression with an even profounder meaning than what you get at first reading? Help me out here, French readers!) What she means is that, while the new Constitution was billed as offering an omnibus solution to all of the EU’s current problems (lack of transparency, the “democratic deficit,” etc.), it actually wound up posing more new problems than solving old ones. What’s more, the whole Constitutional process has missed the main point: the national negotiators go on and on over petty details (again, over the voting set-up in the Council of Ministers, to take the leading example) and take as given the values enunciated in the document’s preamble, such as capitalist competition and monetarist control of the common currency. But could it be that it is this “constitutionalization of economic liberalism,” as Robert calls it, is precisely what many object to in the Constitution?

At bottom, citizens are becoming more and more disillusioned with the EU because it seems incapable of addressing, much less solving, the main problems faced today by Western societies: unemployment, social security, the preservation of peace. Indeed, Robert argues, the “economic liberalism and monetarist rules” regime the Constitution seems designed to entrench actually serves to hinder national governments when they do try to address those problems, such as when France and Germany violated the eurozone’s Stability and Growth Pact; in Robert’s eyes, this was actually a good, encouraging development, as is the EU’s increased willingness to take on the US in World Trade Association (WTO) disputes. The former might go some way towards offsetting the EU’s evident weakening will when it comes to protecting its culture and its agricultural products; the latter might do the same for Europe’s failure last year to stand up to what Robert calls “an American empire which has become psychopathic,” as is allegedly evidenced by the War in Iraq, conducted in violation of international law and the classic laws of war.

Against globalization and budgetary and monetary rules to preserve the value of the euro? For protection of European agriculture (read the infamous Common Agricultural Project), violation of the Stability Pact, and laws to “protect” European culture from the outside (mainly, one imagines, from Hollywood movies)? I warned you that you can count on Le Monde Diplomatique to bring you opinion from the other side of the ledger (if not the other side of reality). Still, such points of view are worth considering (and that’s why I offer this one to you), because these accusations that the EU has no vision beyond a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, and that it fails to address the real problems European citizens struggle with today, strike too close to the thinking mind for comfort.

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