A constitution for the European Union

A pack of hungry dogs don’t tend to stand back and admire a juicy steak before pouncing on it with bared fangs. Ditto with much of the commentary stimulated by the new European Constitution, which was finally signed last October by European leaders and has now embarked on a ratification process that is less marathon than steeplechase; chock-full of obstacles while still a long-distance run. Almost before the ink was dry, opponents of various stripes rushed to criticize it either for not going far enough or for going too far. Activists have focused on fundamental issues (such as whether it creates a «superstate;» it does not), while specific elements have animated others (like whether «Christianity» or «God» should be mentioned; they are not). Passions have run high even among those who haven’t taken an overall look. The reality is more prosaic, and the constitution has hardly fired the broader European imagination so far; just 11 percent of Europeans claim thorough knowledge of it, while 33 percent admit total ignorance (49 percent in Greece). But this should now start to change, with the first national referendum on it coming this Sunday, in Spain. Reading the lines The time is thus ripe for looking at the document itself, stripped as much as possible of its immediate political, economic and strategic context, such as questions over Iraq and the euro and pensions, to see what it actually says about the direction of Europe – or rather, the European Union. For constitutions, by nature, don’t come around often. At best they sum up the past, represent the present, and point to the future. It is a big charge for one document, even if it numbers over 60,000 words (250-300 pages, depending on font; the elegantly concise US Constitution, by contrast, is just 4,600 words, in quill pen). One need not be a pro-constitutionalist or even a pro-European to admire the handiwork and sheer effort that went into its formulation during 18 months of work by a special European Convention and another year of haggling by member states. It opens lyrically (and in Greek, no less, with a quote from Thucydides about democracy), has an inspiring preface, covers all the territory asked of it (and more), streamlines the way the EU is run, and provides the beginnings of a more genuine European polity – the sort of thing that the EU has conspicuously lacked in its first half-century. And it does so in less complicated language than that which has plagued the EU project all along. An endless balance Yet for all this the new constitution, in striving to include rather than exclude, does not (and probably cannot) give a final settlement to many questions, including the one that has tiresomely dominated the European debate from the outset, namely: Should the EU be an instrument of cooperation among states (the intergovernmentalist view) or is it a deeper unity in which member states are subordinate (the integrationalist or federal view)? While consolidating more policy areas at European level and creating a more «political» basis for EU bodies, the constitution also states that the EU is a union of member states and has no competences by right – only by conferral from the states. With little that is genuinely new, the constitution is a balancing act – a «synthesis,» in Convention President Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s term – adding modestly to existing powers, streamlining and opening up procedures, and pushing forth, rather than closing, a long debate about the future of Europe and its world role. But it is far from the leap into Europe-wide democratic rule, or control over Eurocrats in Brussels, that many hoped, however realistically, would come out of this window of opportunity for re-examination. The question before Europeans is whether modest change is better or worse than no change at all.

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