Despite Skepticism, the European Constitution is born
After two and a half years of tough negotiations, Europe's leaders recently managed to agree on the text of a Constitutional Treaty for the European Union. To achieve that consensus on June 18, they had to resolve their differences on two thorny issues – sharing decision-making power in Europe, and the role of government in its economy. Although Europe now has a constitution covering those areas, its text will not appear until it is ratified by every member nation of the European Union. Now, the main fear is that, given the growing wave of ‘Euro-skepticism,’’ some of the 25 countries will not ratify the new constitution, and block the constitutional process.
Earlier, there was widespread pessimism about whether Europe would approve its first constitutional treaty during the first half of the year, when it was Ireland’s turn to hold the EU presidency. One of the main obstacles was opposition on the part of Spain and Poland about the new power-sharing arrangements in the text of the constitution. The new text breaks with the promises made in Nice in 2000. It takes power away from the small countries and increases the power of bigger nations – Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. The negotiations had been at a standstill since December 2003.
In a matter of months, the political situation did an about-face, after the unexpected change in Spain’s government and the low turn-out rates of European voters for the June 13 elections. In March 2004, three days after the “3-11” attacks in Madrid, Spanish socialists won their general elections. Spain then realigned itself with France and Germany, the chief defenders of the new power-sharing arrangements in the Council of Ministers. Spain’s relationship with the Franco-German axis had deteriorated significantly because of Spain’s backing of the U.S. in the Iraq war.
Sara González, economics professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, says that the change in Spain’s position helped remove roadblocks to negotiating the text of the Constitution. It is quite possible that if the earlier arrangement had gone forward, “Spain would have led a group of small countries that felt uncomfortable about the Constitution.”
Another key factor was that 55.8% of Europe’s voters abstained from voting in the latest European elections. This extremely high rate of abstention was especially significant in the ten new members of the EU (who entered on May 1). The most serious problem was Poland, where the rate of abstention was about 80%. Faced with this situation, European leaders could not allow another disaster to take place when it came time to negotiate the Constitution.
On the eve of the meeting of the European Council, Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, declared, “We need a constitution so that we can provide Europeans with a clear and precise idea of Europe, at a time when citizens have shown their disaffection for Europe, by their low rate of participation in the elections for the European Parliament.”
According to González, “Abstention is [tantamount to] a vote.” In her opinion, “Leaders have failed to explain what European citizens can expect, and what role the (European) parliament will play. This is the fault of the member states and European institutions, especially the (European) Commission.” The function of the Commission is to propose guidelines to the Council and the Parliament, which enacts policy in the European Community.
Because of the gap that separates most Europeans from their institutions, voters are abstaining, or they are using their vote to punish the governments of their member-states. In the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy, leaders have suffered significant damage at the polls. Moreover, during the latest electoral campaign, “legislators have focused on making national policy and, in some situations, shown extremely little knowledge of Europe,” says González.
Ultimately, notes González, the increased weight given to France and Germany also played an important role in bringing about a quick agreement. However, in her view, those two countries are likely to play only a temporary leadership role, given the economic and political problems that plague both nations.
Power Struggle: Big vs. small countries
When Europe’s top leaders arrived at Brussels, they were ready to provide the Old Continent with its first constitution. The key to ending the stalemate in negotiations was a plan to share the power of each state in a decision-making formula known as ‘a qualified majority.’ Ireland proposed this solution, which satisfied the big countries, while guaranteeing that Spain and Poland would have more or less as much power as in the earlier pact, signed in Nice. As a result, Spain and Poland wind up in a position of power not too far below that of the big countries of the E.U.
On June 18, European leaders completed an agreement about the first text of the Constitution. However, José Ignacio Torreblanca, an analyst of European affairs at the Real Instituto Elcano, takes a skeptical view. “It’s a good thing that it was signed, but that’s about all you can say. Especially when it comes to institutional topics, it was very hard to resolve issues. Many commitments have been made, and many things have yet to be decided.”
In order to make any decision in the Council, the parties have agreed to require support from 55% of the countries [by number] and 65% of the total E.U. population. Moreover, to counter the fears of small countries, a clause requires that at least four countries participate in any minority group before that group has the power to block proposals. This means that Europe’s three most populous countries, which have more than 35% of the EU’s population, will not be able to block all proposals on a systematic basis.
“The vote-sharing agreement in the Council is good, because it satisfies everyone,” says Torreblanca. “But it is more satisfactory individually than collectively. If the result of the agreements is satisfactory for 25 countries, it is not necessarily satisfying at the aggregate level because this system of voting is a very complex.”
Most experts agree that the Constitution will not simplify the decision-making process previously agreed upon in Nice. On the contrary, it will make the process even more complicated because the voting will be tied to demographic factors that are constantly changing. “We still don’t know how this is going to happen, and be translated into votes,” notes Torreblanca. In contrast, in the Nice treaty, the voting process was clear. For example, Spain had 27 votes, and the big countries each had 29 votes.
In another key agreement, each member-state will maintain a representative in the community’s executive branch until 2014. From that point on, contrary to the interests of small countries, the number of commissioners will be reduced to two-thirds of the [number of] member-states. Moreover, an egalitarian system will rotate posts in the Commission, to prevent the executive branch from becoming inflated and hard to manage. In Torreblanca’s view, “the Commission is still too big. In some areas, some powers are reduced, but it is not very clear how they are going to work. You have to assume that, now that there are 25 members, you will need a more efficient Commission.”
Finally, the Parliament will have increased powers, and grow to 750 seats, from the current number of 732. This solution is not very practical, according to Torreblanca. “Given what happened at earlier elections, it is not clear if we need exactly 750 European deputies, or if 350 will be capable of communicating more effectively, and making things more visible.”
According to González, this reform makes it obvious that “not even the representatives themselves have a clear idea of Europe.” With this system of a double majority of population and countries,” citizens have given up their representative power to the Council, not to the Parliament. The states themselves have created this odd mixture. That is how they can communicate the meaning of the European Parliament to people. This does not contribute to educating voters in a very effective way.”
Minimal advances on the economic front
Economic factors were another key element in the negotiation process. Germany was one of the big winners. It managed to avoid a further strengthening in the power of the European Commission when it comes time to penalizing any country whose public-sector debt exceeds 3% [of their GDP]. Both Germany and France have excessive deficits, and Italy must adopt corrective measures. Brussels has been very critical about this situation. As a result, the (earlier) draft of the Constitution included a provision that the Commission could make proposals for those countries that failed to comply with the (European Stability) Pact. Moreover, only Ecofin – the council of European ministers of economics and finance —would be able to modify proposals, unanimously.
Ultimately, however, they have decided that only the Commission can make recommendations about making corrections in deviations in the budgets of member-states. Moreover, a qualified majority within Ecofin can alter such recommendations. Thanks to the support of other countries, France and Germany have not had to deal with sanctions that Brussels supposedly imposed on those countries that fail to balance their budgets. The Netherlands firmly opposed the decision (not to punish France and Germany). However, its only modest achievement is that the [current text of the] Constitution requires member states to take advantage of economic booms to adjust their public accounts.
According to González, “the big countries don’t bring up whether they comply or don’t comply with the [European Stability] Pact. If they don’t comply, they say, ‘We are going to redefine the Pact.’” Torreblanca adds, “I find this very troubling. We suspect that the big countries make the rules of the game to suit themselves – and with the intention that when they have to apply them, they can escape or receive special treatment. This introduces an element of instability, and a long-term lack of credibility.”
Regarding economic factors, González says, “the more things that are delegated to the Commission, the better it is for everyone because the Commission will approve those projects that benefit the entire European Union. Whether you are talking about community budgets or the distribution of structural funds, the Commission’s vision is medium- and long-term. That’s different from the politicians (in the Council) whose political interests are concrete and short-term.”
The ratification process is up in the air
With the first phase of consensus complete, another stage in the ratification process is now taking place, and it appears to be just as hard as the earlier stage. The first task will be to put together a definitive text, and submit it for review, and translated into the official languages of the E.U. At the end of this year, the text will be officially signed in Rome. Then, each country will choose its own process for ratifying the text, through their national parliaments or a referendum. This subject generates doubt about the future of the Constitutional Treaty because, if just one country fails to ratify the Constitution, it will not go into effect.
When it comes to ratification, Torreblanca sees two kinds of problems. First, in some countries, the referendum may fail. One country where that could happen is the United Kingdom, where the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) has attracted support. Other countries where this could happen include Denmark, which rejected the earlier Treaty of Maastricht; Poland; and at least one Baltic state.
Torreblanca does not believe some countries will vote against the Constitution because it does not include a reference to Christianity, despite the fact some countries have made such a request. In his view, “the religious question is a false one, because the preamble to the Constitution deals with Europe’s religious and humanist heritage, and so forth. In other words, this is not an atheistic constitution. In Poland, some political parties will probably make that charge, but this will be linked to Euro-skepticism in general.”
A second problem, notes Torreblanca, is that “it could turn out to be very bad if a referendum on constitutional ratification draws a voter turnout of less than 50%. As a result, even if the referendum is approved in many countries, its legitimacy could be low, or in doubt.”
According to the Treaty, if only twenty countries have ratified the Constitution within two years after its signing, the European Council will meet to make a decision. The Treaty is unclear about what will happen if the ratification process fails. Torreblanca says, “They left that quite open because, obviously, it is not the same thing if the referendum fails in Lithuania – or it fails in France. If it fails in France, apparently they will repeat [the referendum process] until it is approved. If it fails in Lithuania, at best they will open a procedure for expulsion [of that country.]”
In theory, the Constitution should go into effect during the next European legislative section, since “we have five years to review it several times,” says Torreblanca. Regarding the timing of referendums, “In general, countries prefer not to do much, and watch what happens in neighboring states.” Moreover, he warns, “Some voters see European elections as their opportunity to punish their governments. You have to be careful because the same thing could happen in a referendum, and destroy the Constitution for secondary reasons.”
Another topic that remained open is Romano Prodi’s successor as president of the European Commission. European leaders failed to reach an agreement on this subject at the European Summit in Brussels. Nevertheless, in June 29, José Manuel Durão Barroso, prime minister of Portugal, agreed to become the candidate of consensus to the presidency.
Despite everything, González is optimistic. “In the process of European construction, the Constitution is a necessity. It is better than nothing. When reality changes, there will be appropriate modifications to it. In many regards, this is merely the first step toward further progress.”