More Views on the Proposed EU Constitution

I’m continuing my coverage of the EU draft constitution, which was handed over last Friday by European Convention President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to EU member-states at the Thessaloniki European summit. Now it’s in their hands, to add to and subtract from as they see fit to agree (doing so formally in an Intergovernmental Conference which is due to start in mid-October), in preparation for ratification by all member-states separately in the spring of 2004. Considering now some of the German-speaking parts of Europe, reception of the draft here has been mixed – although, crucially, German Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder has endorsed it.

Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, writing in Der Spiegel an article entitled Kompliment, Konvent! – or “My compliments, Convention!” – also thinks that Giscard d’Estaing’s Constitutional Convention did some good work. For those conversant in German, his piece demands reading and re-reading, mainly because of the way it flies in the face of the many more-hostile reactions to the draft constitution that have been expressed – of which we’ll consider a couple immediately following. What I’m basically asking is: Can he be for real?

Herr Fritz-Vannahme takes evident pleasure in his commentary in the way the Convention, in its deliberations, brushed aside die spanische Kabbalistik (“Spanish occult practice”) over retaining the unnaturally-high vote total that country wields in the Council, which it somehow won for itself in the all-night negotiations that led to the Nice Treaty; how it faced down the British government’s insistence that all future foreign- and security-policy matters still be subject to voting unanimity; and how it dealt with smaller objections coming from smaller states such as Ireland, Denmark, and Austria. But each of the above-named “losers” in the Convention can still look to their national governments and the Intergovernmental Conference process to still get their way in the final version of the constitution that is put up for ratification. Indeed, Spain has already been joined by Poland in calling for revisions to the Convention’s draft to preserve the out-of-whack voting proportions it won at Nice, since Poland is about the same size as Spain and so also would gain this advantage upon entering the EU next May if nothing changes.

In general, Herr Fritz-Vannahme concludes that the draft constitution will make everything vieles einfacher und verständlicher – “more simple and understandable” – in the European Parliament, in the European Commission, and above all in the Council of Ministers. Indeed, the Council of Ministers will become more efficient (and even a bit more transparent, he adds, although it’s true that it will continue to be allowed to meet behind closed doors), the Commission stronger, and the European Parliament more important. Die schönen Zeiten der nationalen Souveränität sind vorbei (“The golden age of national sovereignty is past”) with this new constitution, Herr Fritz-Vannahme grandly declares – even though member-states will still be able to content themselves with minor “toys of sovereignty” for a little while longer yet.

Here we are witnessing an unapologetic Euro-Federalist, and one who apparently is happy to see in the results of the EU Constitutional Convention a significant step towards that goal. But it’s hardly true that everyone in Europe – or even a majority of the political population – shares that goal. Even if Fritz-Vannahme’s evaluation of the worth of the draft constitution turns out to be at all accurate, the very fact of the considerable opposition to a European federation will mean serious attempts occurring to re-write that draft, and much hard bargaining, once the Intergovernmental Conference formally gets underway. It might also very well mean the constitution’s ultimate failure, either because the IGC is not able to agree on a final draft, and/or because one or more of the twenty-five member states which will have to ratify it refuse to do so.

For a look at some of the objections other important European political figures have to the present state of the Convention’s draft, we can consider the very detailed opinion of Edmund Stoiber, as reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who is Bavarian Premier and head of the German Christian Socialist Union party (CSU), and who missed out last year by the most narrow of margins on being elected German Bundeskanzler. Stoiber’s objections (expressed in a letter to his colleague, CDU Chairwoman Angela Merkel, before the Convention draft’s presentation at Thessaloniki), are detailed; there are sixteen of them given in the article.

We’ll only hit the highlights here, but the most substantive problems have to do with the added ability the draft constitution would give EU authorities to intervene in the economic and social affairs of member states. Stoiber is against these things, of course; specifically-speaking he is:

– Against the economic policy coordination which the EU would be charged with conducting – and here “economic policy” would include labor market, tax, and social (i.e. social insurance, welfare) policy. This is the big one. Apparently, among other things the EU would have the power to determine, by majority vote, the composition of a member-states tax revenues; to set, by majority vote, minimum standards for the protection employees would receive against being fired from their jobs.
– Against greater EU control over immigration and asylum policies of member-states, including how and how many asylum-seekers are to be allowed access to the host country labor market. Again, the big problem here is that these areas go over to majority-voting. That means that the EU can accomplish more, but the flipside of the coin is that policies in these sensitive areas can be shoved down the throat of a country that doesn’t want them but is out-voted at the Council of Ministers. In large part, Stoiber insists that these areas go back to requiring unanimity.
– Against a changing of the assignment of the European Central Bank to “support the general EU economic policy, without harming the goal of price stability.” Right now that mandate is simply to maintain price stability. Stoiber regards this change-of-language as opening the door to a “inflation-based monetary policy.” (You’ve got to admire his consistent stand on this, especially in view of the fact that, these days, monetary problems in most of the EU – and certainly in Germany – are of the opposite sort, to include even the threat of deflation.)
– And Stoiber wants a reference to God in the constitution, “at least in the preamble.”

I draw a number of lessons out of this article: 1) There are plenty of people out there – important people – who don’t see the output of the Convention in such a rosy light as the Die Zeit writer; we can indeed expect fireworks once all these differing viewpoints – that is, these different attempts to change the draft to accord more closely with one’s national and political preferences – all come together at the Intergovernmental Conference. 2) Is it really true that the draft constitution will empower the EU to intrude, by majority-vote, in these important areas of national responsibility? Luckily Edwin Stoiber read the document (a long and notoriously difficult and boring text) – I guess that’s his job, but he seems anyway to be a conscientious type. (That itself is the flipside of being “stuffy” and “uncool,” which Stoiber was certainly accused of being during last year’s electoral campaign.) How many politicians out there are offering their support or their opposition to this Constitution (Schröder? Chirac?) without having really read it or even having really been briefed on what it actually says?

Finally, most amazing of all is the interview with Jean-Claude Juncker published in the recent edition of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. First of all, Juncker is actually a current head of government, if not the head of a particularly important government – he is premier of Luxembourg. (Hey, even Luxembourg has the power to veto a lot of things in the present EU, and would still retain much of that power even if the draft constitution in its present form were ratified – that’s one of the things at issue about it, as a matter of fact.) And he’s very unsatisfied with the work of the Constitutional Convention.

(Go ahead and check out the article. You don’t have to be a German-speaker to realize that the interview starts off under a cloud. “Herr prime minister, are you satisfied with the result of the European Constitutional Convention?” “No. [i.e. next question, please.]” But of course it’s not the Spiegel interviewer that Juncker is cross at.)

Actually, he’s mostly (but not exclusively) unhappy about the way that the Convention did its work. “In my twenty years in European politics, I have never seen such un-transparency, such a fully opaque event that so completely fled from democratic competition of ideas it was charged with upholding when it was created. I have never seen a darker darkroom than the Convention.” According to Juncker, it was not the full 105-member Convention, but rather the select “praesidium” of people around Valéry Giscard d’Estaing that made the real decisions. Then, when it came to “delivering” the draft to the EU summit in Greece, what was delivered was only a brief summary – the actual, extensive texts of the draft were delivered to governments only after the summit, meaning that the opportunity was lost for the assembled heads of state to start discussions about such an important document. And even examining it after the summit was of little help; according to Juncker, “The text from the Convention that we have so far is completely unreadable . . . . Only insiders are able to glean essential points out of the paragraphs that lay before us. Clarity was promised, but what has been issued is in many places eyewash (Augenwischerei).”

Juncker also takes issue with a number of points that he has been able to make out from the draft’s text. The Convention has provided for a new president of the Council, but one which will be relatively weak. Yes, Juncker says, Luxembourg and other small states did not want a strong president for the Council – but rather than a weak one, better not to have any such president at all. And, what with all the majority voting that is still required for a common foreign policy, the EU’s competence in that era has not been bettered at all; when the next crisis comes along, says Juncker, we can look forward to the same splits and paralysis that Europe just suffered when faced with the War in Iraq.

In all, the idea of a Constitutional Convention in the first place was that the notorious negotiation of EU treaties that takes place at key EU summits – with its famous hours of bickering during all-night marathon sessions – was both ineffective and not open to public observation and participation. The Convention was supposed to be both; according to Juncker, it was neither, so that the EU might just as well return to half-yearly all-night negotiating sessions among heads of government.

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