Hopes for future of a newEuropean Constitution

BRUSSELS – The spotlight at last week’s meeting in Berlin between French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the European Constitution and though the situation remains unclear, for the first time a clear timetable has now appeared. Europe has an 18-month window in which to salvage hopes for a constitution and, with it, perhaps its own future. That period will begin at the end of the German presidency, just a year from today, and will end at the end of the next French presidency in the second half of 2008. Germany is expected to present a comprehensive proposal on the future of the constitution. As France prepares to enter the twilight of Chirac’s rule, as Merkel seeks acclaim in Europe, and as both countries continue in their attempt to dominate the European Union in the form of a «French-German axis,» the scenario that emerged in Berlin seems absolutely realistic: Germany will present a proposal that will acquire flesh and bones in the 18 months during the presidency of a post-Chirac, reborn France. The basic parameters for the German proposal are clear, for the survival of the existing text in any recognizable form presupposes a new referendum in France and the Netherlands, something that is not politically feasible and therefore is probably out of the question. So the most likely scenario is an extensive revision either by cutting out sections that have upset the French or by removing whole chunks, keeping only elements such as «foreign minister» that can be included without complicated democratic procedures in existing European treaties. Another version has been leaked in Paris ? a general revision of the text at a new conference or intergovernmental conference and the submission of the result in a Europe-wide referendum. The question now is the extent of the cuts to be made by the French and Germans in order for people to be persuaded that it is something truly new and worthy of their interest and their trust. The most interesting idea is that of a Europe-wide referendum, which hopefully will make a more European approach to the issue possible on the part of the EU’s citizens, separating it from the domestic political situation in each country. In fact, what was missing last year in France was a mature dialogue on the constitution and on Europe. The ease with which the left and the extreme right underhandedly manipulated French public opinion is a clear warning for the future. Simply put, a Europe-wide referendum could result in a Europe-wide rejection and that is why such an undertaking has been ruled out in the past. The «no» vote from France and the Netherlands was certainly a heavy blow to a specific view of Europe, however the EU is moving on. Furthermore, a rejection by all of Europe would have more far-reaching consequences for the Union itself. If it is to be a success, any text will have to not simply cut off the oxygen supply to the left-ultra right alliance, but convince voters of its value as a fundamental text for the Union and as a reflection of a truly new Europe. Otherwise, simply retaining certain technical provisions of the constitution and quietly including them into the existing Treaty of Nice is the far wiser solution. A preliminary discussion on the posible future course of developments is expected to be held at the EU summit this Thursday and Friday in Brussels, as the leaders of the 25 member states assure their citizens that they are listening to and meeting their demands.

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