The discussion about the future of the European Union has started in earnest. After the No votes on the European constitution in the French and the Dutch referendums, the four viewpoints have emerged, each reflecting a different mindset about the nature of European integration.
The first of these groups still clings to the vain hope that the constitution could somehow still be saved, perhaps through second referendums in France and the Netherlands. This group dominated the debate in the first days after the referendums but is now in decline. Of all four options, this one seems the least realistic to me.
The second group are the cherry-pickers. They want to implement the constitution not as a whole but in parts. Ratification would occur mainly through parliaments. The idea is to pick the main components of the constitution – for example the charter of fundamental rights, the EU foreign minister or the new voting rules – and implement each separately in subsequent treaty revisions.
At a recent high-level seminar organised by the Aspen Institute of Italy, the a non-profit leadership organisation, attended by senior EU officials and academics, this option emerged as the clear favourite. Whether you like the idea or not, it will be on the agenda.
But there are big problems with this approach. The constitution is the result of multilateral trade-offs among the 25 EU member governments. This is why it has become so large and convoluted. What appears important to one country may not seem at all important to another. Whenever you subtract something, you should not be surprised to find someone raising their hand in protest.
Furthermore, by going down this route, the EU would in effect ively override a No vote in a referendum through a parliamentary vote. This smacks of contempt for democracy. While referendums are not inherently more democratic than parliamentary procedures, they are still binding for a certain period. The only democratic way to undo a referendum vote is through a referendum itself.
A third group accepts this argument and argues that we should, therefore, negotiate an entirely new constitution, in the form of an amendment to the Treaty of Nice, the EU’s present legal foundation. It would not be called a constitution but would still contain the most important elements of the recently rejected constitution. This group, too, has substantial support.
Last week, I received a proposal for such a new treaty drawn up by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Munich-based Centre for Applied Policy Research. It includes eight big institutional changes, such as the foreign minister and the president of the Council; four amended decision-making and voting procedures; five procedures to facilitate multi-speed integration; and eight legal changes, such as the right of succession. This is the old constitution minus a few bits and with a different name.
A fourth group argues that we should forget about the constitution for the time being and concentrate all available energy on solving the most pressing problems of the EU: chronically weak economic growth and mass unemployment. The EU should set itself the goal of full employment, work out a strategy and commit itself to it.
This group divides into those, like such as Tony Blair, the British prime minister and current holder of the EU presidency, who prefer an intergovernmental approach, and those who favour more hands-on co-ordination.
The latter group include a growing number of continental European economists, who have grown increasingly frustrated by the economic performance of the eurozone and the tendency of governments and the European Central Bank to blame each other.
By policy co-ordination they do not mean the Lisbon agenda, the once-hyped and subsequently forgotten attempt to turn the EU into the most competitive region in the world by 2010. This was Mr Blair’s brainchild. It contained too many goals and, most importantly, it lacked the necessary commitment by national governments.
They want something more far-reaching – policy co-ordination that goes beyond finance ministers hitting each other over the head about budget deficits. They want to co-ordinate tax policies (the tax base, not the tax rates), relations with the ECB, uropean Central Bank, economic reforms, financial market regulation and issues such as Italy’s persistent discrimination against takeovers by foreign banks.
Ideally, this type of co-ordination should involve the heads of governments. The problem with the finance ministers is that they are politically too weak, especially in Germany, France and Italy.
The important point is that the constitution would be irrelevant to such a process. It would have taken only a marginal step in this direction, by upgrading the role of the euro group, the regular meeting of eurozone finance ministers.
It included no changes to the Maastricht treaty’s fiscal rules, the status of the ECB or the need for economic policy co-ordination. Those who drafted rs of the constitution thought that the EU economy worked so perfectly well that no changes were needed. Unfortunately, this is still the mainstream view of the European institutions.
My bet is that the EU will waste valuable time prancing about and discussing how to revive the constitution. It is no surprise that an increasing number of Europeans are turning anti-EU.