Mixed French Reviews for the New Constitution

Failure in December – but success in June! At their just-concluded Brussels summit the European Union’s now twenty-five members finally accepted a draft to put forward to their constituent parliaments and/or voters as the new European Constitution. Perhaps this summit’s productive result can be ascribed to the rotating EU presidency being held now by Bertie Ahern and the diplomatically-astute Irish, whereas Italy and Silvio Berlusconi were in charge last December – the Council presidency will cease to rotate this way once the new Constitution is enacted, by the way – or maybe it was all due to the new governments in place in Spain and Poland, the two “medium-sized” EU states that were the principle obstacles to progress at the last summit in December. One thing is sure, though: France and Jacques Chirac were once again in the middle of the goings-on, and so a review of French reporting and comment is appropriate. (Tony Blair was also a leading protagonist – or at least according to the French press, as we shall see – but I’ll let you read the on-line British papers about that yourself – and pay for it, in the case of The Times.)

First, a quick review of the principal problems that had held up agreement in December, and the solutions that were found for them. These were mainly two: 1) A dispute over voting-weights to approve those measures in the European Council (the body representing governments) which require so-called “qualified-majority” approval – which when/if the Constitution is ratified will encompass the vast majority of measures coming before the Council. The numbers are now 55%/65%: that is, to be passed a measure must gain the votes of at least 55% of member-states, collectively representing at least 65% of the EU’s population. (But there are still some footnotes to this, as we’ll see.) 2) The dispute over the Commission, whether to allow one-country-one-commissioner or else to lower commissioner numbers to some level actually corresponding to the real number of portfolios. EU law as it now stands (i.e. up to and including the Nice Treaty) provides for implementing one-country-one-commissioner, so that soon the larger EU states will lose their second commissioners and the total number of commissioners will grow to 25. But the new Constitution says that, as of 2014, this will be rolled back to 18 commissioners, one-per-country but with roughly one-third of member-states (big and small indiscriminately) not having their “representative commissioner” at any given time, rotating in some sort of regular, logical order. (I write “representative commissioner” because that’s really not the way the Commission is supposed to work – the commissioners are supposed to be political/policy experts, from whatever land, and not representatives of their home countries. But perception is more powerful than what is supposed to be reality here; everybody – especially small countries – has remained hung up on one-country-one-commissioner.)

In addition, there was a new problem to deal with at this summit, which was to agree upon a successor to Romano Prodi as President of the European Commission. In the end, this was left unresolved for later, as a coalition led by Britain, Italy, and Poland blocked Guy Verhofstadt, the preferred candidate of the France-German-Belgium-Luxembourg axis, which axis in turn blocked Chris Patten, the preferred candidate of the British.

Yes, the Constitution was agreed, and EU leaders were quick to issue the predictable plaudits about the future of Europe now being back on course and that sort of thing. But as Libération reports, the mood at the summit itself was anything but triumphant (A Europe of Weak Constitution – yes, it’s a pun also in the French). The agreement, the three Libération special correspondents write here, was “accomplished in sadness [douleur“] and “neither euphoria nor frank camaraderie” characterized the summit’s two days. The Libération writers push hard the theme of the original Constitution’s (i.e. the draft that came out of the Constitutional Convention a year ago) ambition being watered-down by British demands. In their zeal to find a compromise, they maintain, the Irish were also guilty of this ambition-betrayal: in the proposals they put forward they supposedly struck out anything they thought would displease the British. But most of the smaller countries (other than Belgium and Luxembourg, always to be found in the French camp) were also guilty of watering down what the original Constitution-writers had tried to achieve. Libération claims that this bloc was headed by the Czech Republic (represented in Brussels by its head-of-government, premier Vladimir Spidla); to further boost the ability of smaller countries to block things they don’t like at the Council, this group added the above-mentioned additional footnotes to qualified-majority voting that would allow a measure to be blocked even if it satisfied the 55%/65% rule given above, as long as that minority blocking-group was composed of at least four member-states collectively making up at least 15% of EU population.


As for the overall effect of all this, Nathalie Dubois and Jean Quatremer, also writing in Libération, make their disappointment plain in Swan-Song of European Power. Tony Blair is the villain here, and it’s appropriate that the summit’s decisive final day happened to be the 189th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Naturally, Blair didn’t make much of this coincidence; he preferred getting real present-day victories for his restricted British point-of-view, making himself in the eyes of Dubois and Quatremer no better than the famously Eurosceptic John Major, who returned from the Maastricht summit in 1991 crowing that he had won “game, set, and match.” In Blair’s case, these victories were successfully defending his pre-announced “red lines,” i.e. those areas of policy where Britain would insist on requiring unanimity for passage at the Council of Ministers, and therefore the right of any of the twenty-five member-states to veto. These areas are defense, foreign policy taxation, and social affairs. But beyond this, claim Libération’s writers, Blair in a literal manner helped demonstrate the EU’s continuing inability to get things decided by spurring the wrangle over choosing a successor to Romano Prodi. Libération’s pessimistic point-of-view found its echo in Le Monde’s editorial (Constitution and Disunion – unsigned), which saw the EU as still profoundly divided, mainly on the lines that first revealed themselves over American intentions to invade Iraq. But could the new Constitution do something about this and give the European project back a little of its old élan? That’s doubtful, declared Le Monde, for at least three reasons: 1) That Constitution still must be ratified by all twenty-five member-states, something which in the light of the results of the latest elections to the European Parliament looks increasingly unlikely to happen; 2) In any case, more than a year of wrangling over how to change the draft Constitution that emerged from out of the Convention has left behind scars and grudges, which could easily tend to make the Union even more disunified; and 3) That new Constitution fails to boost the power of the EU to get things done with those twenty-five members, precisely because the original draft was so watered-down in the meantime by certain states, Britain foremost among them.

Treatment of the agreement over the Constitution in the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro (Europe Has A Constitution Blueprint) tends to the more dispassionate. Correspondent Alexandrine Bouilhet does also note that what finally emerged is notably less-ambitious than the Convention’s original draft, But describes this simply the price that had to be paid to successfully get agreement among twenty-five. And she goes against Libération’s claims that the Irish presidency had submitted a compromise draft aimed mainly at satisfying British objections, maintaining that the France-German-Belgium-Luxembourg bloc was ready to accept that initial Irish draft immediately; most of the summit’s controversy revolved around the problems the bloc of small countries still had with the Council voting mechanism. If it is true that the French-German bloc was ready to accept the Irish draft right away, then one element behind that was apparently a desire to get their choice of new Commission President at the same time, taking advantage of the Irish determination to get this out of the way also at this summit. You make the “concession” of accepting the draft immediately in order to link that to the choice of your own preferred Commission president candidate (namely Verhofstadt) by the others. Germany’s Gerhard Schröder was the main protagonist behind this tactic, reports Bouilhet. But it didn’t work; Tony Blair and his other EU member-state allies wouldn’t bite. So that candidate remains unchosen, even as the 19 July date for submitting him (presumably “him”) to the European Parliament for that body’s approval draws increasingly near, and the prospect looms of a sort of special mini-summit next month with no other purpose than to finally take care of this.


With Verhofstadt and Patten supposedly beyond the pale, which candidates are left? Le Figaro offers insights to these questions in a separate article by Luc de Barochez entitled Massacre-Play for the Presidency of the Commission. First of all, Barochez notes what could be called the “Chirac criteria” for any Commission President, another of this Brussels summit’s outputs. According now to the French President, the Commission President should in all cases come from a country that is both in the EU’s Schengen zone (i.e. that allows control-free passage of its borders to and from other EU countries) and in its euro-zone (i.e. uses the euro currency). Those criteria eliminate the British favorite, Chris Patten (since the UK does not use the euro and does have border controls at ports and airports), and that probably not coincidentally; as reasonable as they new criteria might sound, they were probably enunciated at least as much as a means to sugar-coat Chirac’s rejection of Patten.

So who else is there, if any candidates now have to satisfy these “Chirac criteria”? There’s namely an entirely new list that De Barochez gives, almost completely different from the names reported in the preview I tried to give earlier on these pages. These are namely: Portuguese premier José Manuel Durao Barroso, French minister of foreign affairs Michel Barnier (right, like anyone will agree to someone who is clearly in Jacques Chirac’s pocket), Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, and even current European Parliament President Pat Cox. One other name is also mentioned, that I did list before, that of Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker. But I also noted back then that he says he doesn’t want the post, and De Barochez confirms this here, which is a shame, because apparently he is the only name everyone can agree upon at the present moment.

Finally, for those reading French and in search of even more comment on the summit events in Brussels of last Thursday and Friday from the lesser French newspapers, Le Nouvel Observateur comes up again with an excellent French press review on the subject.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.