The Convention on a new constitution for the European Union has been established mainly in response to the challenges presented by the accession of ten new Member States in 2004. While the institutions set up when the Common Market was formed in the 1950s have evolved, as membership of what is now the European Union has expanded, clearly the prospect of admission of so many new members will cause major new strains. The Summit at Laeken in 2001 therefore agreed that a new constitutional framework should be devised to cope with the requirements of a greatly enlarged EU.
At the Laeken Summit three experienced statesmen, all with strong pro-EU credentials, were appointed to lead the negotiations at the Convention. These were the former French President Val‚ry Giscard d'Estaing, assisted by Jean-Luc Dehaene and Giuliano Amato, formerly Prime Ministers of Belgium and Italy respectively. There is then an inner group of twelve people called the Praesidium and an outer group numbering about one hundred, consisting of representatives of the European Parliament and national Parliaments and governments both of the existing Member States and the new applicants. The proceedings are designed to achieve a consensus, with no votes planned. Promises were given that "in order for the debate to be broadly based and involve all citizens, a Forum will be opened for organisations representing civil society (the social partners, the business world, non-governmental organisations, academia, etc)". In fact, however, the Convention is packed with a large majority of enthusiasts for expanding the competence of the EU. Those outside the Convention who have been consulted have been almost entirely organisations and individuals known to be in favour of the EU federalist project, most of them being supported financially one way or another by the EU. There is thus no real effort to involve the citizens of the EU in any meaningful way in shaping their future. The Convention is all about Brussels talking to Brussels.
The Convention is scheduled to deliver a draft outcome to the EU Summit in Greece in June 2003. The Prime Ministers of the existing fifteen Member States will then call for an Intergovernmental Conference to negotiate the next European Treaty, which will entail the implementation of the Constitution. The aim is to have this in place by the time the new applicants are scheduled to become Member States in 2004, coinciding with the next round of elections to the European Parliament.
Given the membership of the Convention it is hardly surprising to find that the thrust of the recommendations emerging from its deliberations is strongly centralising in character. With those opposing such trends largely based in national parliaments and lacking organisation, the well marshalled Brussels based federalists have had a major opportunity to frame suggestions. This is why it is now proposed that the Union Constitution will override national constitutions in any case of conflict. The EU may change its name to the United States of Europe. The EU will be a legal entity distinct from that of the Member States. Everyone will be a citizen of the EU as well as of a Member State, having dual nationality. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is to be made legally binding, justiciable by the EU Court of Justice, instead of having only declaratory status. EU law will have primacy over national law. We will now have a new obligation to be "loyal" to the EU, implying that national government must give priority to Union objectives even in areas of policy that have not been transferred to the EU. There is likely to be a new position created as President of the Union. The non-elected Commission will retain the monopoly of legislative initiative. There will be a common defence policy.
It needs little imagination to see the direction in which changes of this kind will take us. The outcome of the Convention is almost certain to entail another major advance towards the creation of a fully fledged state of Europe, deliberately copying but also established to rival the United States of America. This is, of course, exactly what most of the political elite both in the existing EU Member States and the applicant countries want to see happen. Whether this is what the people of Europe want, however, is an entirely different matter. The fact that opinion polls tell us that, if the EU was dissolved, its demise would be regretted by a majority in only three of the fifteen current Member States shows how wide the gulf now is between the citizens of Europe and the way that decisions are taken in Brussels. So does the electoral apathy in EU elections as voters perceive how little influence they really have on the way the EU operates.
A revealing way of assessing the impact of the proposals emerging from the Convention is to look at who will be the gainers and losers. Perhaps predictably, the institution which looks as though it will emerge with its power and influence most enhanced is the Commission. Bureaucracies always see difficulties as opportunities and the problems presented by enlargement have provided plenty of scope for the Commission to increase its power at the expense of everyone else. Large, richer countries will gain at the expense of those which are smaller and poorer. The European Parliament is also likely to see its influence enhanced. The most obvious losers will be the national parliaments, who will see their role further eroded by ever extending qualified majority voting and the transfer of more and more legislative initiative to the Commission. Perhaps the biggest losers of all, however, are likely to be the people of Europe as a whole, who will have had very little say in the creation of the way in which they are to be governed, for which they manifestly have little enthusiasm. It will come as no surprise to them to find that the new constitution, by which they are to be bound, will be introduced without popular consent in all but a handful of mostly small countries, where referendums will have to be held to comply with their individual constitutional requirements.
The work of the Convention is thus all too likely further to reinforce all the trends in the EU which have been so clearly manifest over the last half century since the Common Market was established. The key developments have been the growth in the power and influence of the unelected Commission and the corresponding erosion of the status of the democratically elected national parliaments in the constituent Member States. This process has been aided and abetted by a political class, strongly represented in all EU countries, who regard the creation of a state of Europe as being more important than the preservation of genuine democracy. They are obsessed with developing a counterweight to American power and influence. They greatly enjoy the large stage which a Europe wide political structure provides to them. Many of them come from countries where democracy has not always worked as well as it might have done. Their instincts then are to create structures which, while nominally democratic in form, bypass true democratic control and substitute bureaucracy as the alternative. Instead of working with the grain of true representative democracy, which has to operate within a framework of shared history, language, culture and traditions, they are happy to create a form of governance which is in a world of its own, largely impervious to any effective democratic control.
The way in which the Convention is operating gives the impression that there is really no alternative to the vision of a United States of Europe which their work is designed to create. There is no reason to believe, however, that this is a correct view. There certainly is another way in which Europe as whole could develop. This would be with the national states as the main building blocks, controlled by democratically elected governments accountable to their own national parliaments. There would then be unrestrained scope for voluntary co-operation between the nation states of Europe on any matters where they believed that they had a common interest. This is surely far closer to what most people in Europe want than what is on offer at the moment, which is to leave the nation states with a more and more subservient status - charged with acting as agencies for the provision of public services but stripped of more and more effective power as to how they are to be organised and financed.
The outcome of the work of the Convention is thus crucially important. It will do as much to determine the future direction of policy in Europe as has the introduction of the euro. Unless there is a very unlikely change of heart during the coming months, it will mastermind a further move towards the centralised bureaucratic European state which is not what the people of Europe want, but which is being foisted upon them. There is little doubt that the next steps will involve further enhancement of the powers of the centre at the expense of the periphery. These will very probably include the introduction of far larger powers for Brussels to tax and spend, justified both by the need to buttress the euro and to reflect the growing power of the central institutions of the EU vis … vis the nation state. As the powers of the EU centre increases, so the role of the truly democratic foundations of the EU, the democratically elected national parliaments, will become relegated to a role similar to those currently enjoyed by county councils. Is this the best which Europe, where democracy was discovered and nurtured, can do? How long will it be before the people of Europe summon the will to take back control of their destiny and to insist on a system of governance which truly reflects their aspirations?
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