Giscard Sounds the Alarm over Constitution

The original delegates to the Convention which spent eighteen months drawing up the draft EU Constitution, delivering it last June, got together again last Friday in Brussels. Their meeting was of course in the shadow of the climactic European summit of heads-of-government coming up fast next weekend, which is supposed to round off the EU’s Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) and coming up with a final constitutional document on which all member-states (current and future) can agree. The theme of their meeting: “What have you done to our work?!” Or, to use some French: “What’s with all the détricotage?” or “unravelling,” the way you would maliciously pick apart someone else’s carefully-done knitting. That was the formulation of their leader at the Convention, France’s Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was there to address them and articulate where the Convention thinks that the IGC has gotten it wrong. This is covered in two articles out of the French on-line press, whose titles are eloquent in themselves: Giscard Tries to Save His Constitution, in Le Figaro, and “Better No Constitution Than a Mutilated Constitution” (that’s a quote, and not just Giscard’s), in Libération.


Plutôt la crise qu’un compromis au rabais! are the first words of the Libération article (“Better a crisis than a cheap compromise!”), and that gives you a good flavor of the mood among those committed to seeing the draft Constitution go through largely unchanged, going into next weekend’s summit. But the Le Figaro article deserves consideration first, as it focuses on Giscard d’Estaing’s contributions to the debate, some of which are quite remarkable. As stated above, he is plainly in the “better no solution than a bad solution” school, inveighing against any “mutilated Constitution, that would enclose Europe in a non-adapted structure and would exhaust the confidence of Europeans for a long time.” “The role of the IGC consisted of approving or improving the Constitution [i.e. the draft that issued out of the Convention last June], but certainly not of weakening it,” he declared. “Unfortunately, on several points the propositions put forward at the IGC actually worsen the consensus that had been achieved at the Convention.” Among those points: The efforts at the IGC to rein back the greater influence and power the Convention’s draft gives to both the European Parliament and Commission in the EU budget process, and the attempts to limit the convergence in criminal law that it envisages. And, of course, don’t forget the confrontation that has arisen over the Convention’s proposals on the size of the new Commission (it wanted just 15 voting members) and voting-weights in the European Council (it proposed the simpler “double-majority” voting system, to supersede the more-complicated system arrived at at Nice in 2000), which have turned out to be the IGC’s most sorely-fought issues.

In his Brussels speech, Giscard d’Estaing actually said that he doubted that the heads-of-government will succeed in emerging with an agreed-upon constitutional text out of next weekend’s summit – which, in his view, could very well be a good thing, and this is when he let drop his remark about no Constitution being better than a mutilated one. What’s more, in that case he also doesn’t think that simply “more time” is what will be needed to finally bring about the required agreement. For those who have dared to look over the brink, into the abyss of constitutional stalemate, the assumption has been that the IGC could be prolonged into 2004 (and so into the Irish EU presidency of the first half of next year), but that things would have to be wrapped up by May in order for the new Constitution to be ready for ratification by national legislatures – and, in many cases, by national referenda which would be scheduled to coincide with European Parliament elections next June. That’s not Giscard’s view; “if demands [put forward at the IGC] remain inspired by national preoccupations and not Europe’s needs, then there is nothing to expect from trying to pursue these negotiations.” Much better would be what he called a délai de réflexion – a pause to let everyone really think about things, and to allow the politicians to get some sense of what their electorates think about the whole affair through going ahead and holding those June European Parliament elections – without referenda on the Constitution, of course, because it would not be ready yet. “Good constitutions like the American one are the product of intense and detailed reflection,” he maintained, “and not of a compromise improvised at the last minute.”


He has a point. What’s more, he also succeeded in putting some lead into the spine of Franco Frattini, Italian foreign minister and therefore the official who acted as chairman (since Italy currently holds the EU presidency) at last week’s largely-inconclusive meeting of EU foreign minsters in Naples, the latest formal episode of the IGC. Whereas at Naples Frattini sounded ready to make concessions to small nations’ demands, writes author Alexandrine Bouilhet (she doesn’t mention specifics; it’s likely that she’s referring at least to the concession of allowing each member-state to retain its own voting Commissioner, which I seem to recall – I thought – was one of the few things decided at Naples), now he is back on the side of defending the Convention’s text against attempts to change it. And he has also caught that good ol’ Giscard religion: “It would be better to not have a Constitution than to arrive at a cheap compromise that the Italian presidency will not accept.”

With the “change nothing” side (which, remember, is made up of the original six nations of the 1957 EEC) seemingly rallying and hardening its position, what chance is there for the Brussels summit? The Libération article’s author, Jean Quatremer, does bravely suggest that there is still room for compromise. On the “double majority vs. Nice” question, for example, what the current draft means by “double majority” is that, to pass the Council, a measure must be supported by at least half of the EU states, together representing at least 60% of the EU’s population. That 60% could be upped to a higher figure to appease those worried about how difficult it would otherwise be to block something they didn’t like. Quatremer even hints that compromise is possible as well on the composition of the Commission, mentioning that reform there can anyway be put off until 2015. (And here I think he is way off-base: Look, there will be ten new members of the EU come next May, one way or the other, and they naturally will want to know, right then, how many Commissioners they can send to Brussels, what will be their portfolios, and whether they will have voting rights. There’s no putting this question off for later! – as probably is possible on the voting-weights question, as Britain’s Jack Straw has pointed out.)

Hang on for next weekend, ladies and gentlemen. EuroSavant will be there, of course – “there” meaning on-line, monitoring what’s happening via my usual stable of national presses that I can read, and passing the information on to you here. We might even find ourselves getting close to the blogathon ideal I mentioned in an entry a few days back.

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