EU's headlong rush toward a flawed constitution: David Howell

David Howell has some views on the EU’s constitution – why is there no plan B?

Read on…

“Riding for a fall” is a phrase from the fox-hunting world. It describes someone rushing too fast at much too high a fence, stirrups flying, jumping much too late and inevitably taking a nasty tumble.

Just this picture comes to mind watching the European Union’s ministers, led by the Irish presidency, press on recklessly with the current draft constitution, determined to rush to agreement by mid-June. The project is bound to tumble, if not at this fence, then at the next one. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to hold a referendum in Britain, which is certain to vote no, is no more than bowing to the inevitable. With or without the British, it could never really have worked. The Blair decision merely makes rejection certain.

The tragedy of this situation is that no Plan B for a better treaty – a gentler ride at a lower fence – is being proposed, except for the idea that if the current draft is rejected, an inner core of disgruntled countries will push ahead with something else. This is an absurd and forlorn notion, as Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany and others have pointed out.

Yet for the enlarged Union to evolve, something more is needed. A simplified body of rules and principles and a modern, flexible organizational structure are required to make the new 25-state entity operate, to define unambiguously where powers should lie and to circumscribe cleanly the responsibilities and competences of the central Union authorities. Above all, the feeling of remoteness and nonaccountability in EU decision-making, although it may be exaggerated, must be overcome.

All these requirements the rambling draft constitution fails to provide. Yet it is precisely to meet these needs that a new treaty is so urgently called for. So where are the truly inspired European leaders, or the skilled officials, who ought even now to be assembling and drafting a different treaty?

Several simplified texts are already circulating – some in the European Parliament, others in research groups round Europe and inside the political parties. Britain’s Conservatives have had some workable ideas for a different kind of treaty on file for some time.

But the problem is not so much the content as process – the means by which some practical but profound rules, which command confidence in every Parliament and among all peoples in Europe, can be drafted and agreed without all the divisiveness and antipathy that the current draft – and the very word “Constitution” – has generated.

It is vital therefore to understand why this draft constitution – with its 270 pages, its obtuse language, its heavy centralizing tendencies and its blurring of roles – was flawed from the start, and why the procedures that gave birth to it were flawed all along.

The convention that drew it up was attended by some brilliant people, but they were not elected, most were not representatives of elected governments (although there were a few ministers, and more started crowding in when they saw the way things were going) and they spoke only for themselves.

The wiser ones quickly perceived that they would be lucky to get their views heard at all; that this was an exercise in which the inner group, the presidium, would call all the shots. It was a top-down affair par excellence.

A far better approach would have been for a team of Union-appointed wise men and women to have visited their masters – the national governments and Parliaments – and distilled from them what was seen as needed, comfortable and practical in today’s novel conditions. For example, it should have been the aim from the outset to anchor national, elected Parliaments at the heart of the EU law-making and decision-making process.

What true European visionaries needed to grasp, and still need to grasp, is that, in an age of network power and vast information dispersal, the old hierarchical and centralized structure of the EU no longer makes sense. It had become neither necessary nor efficient nor popularly acceptable.

Perhaps a new Jean Monnet would have perceived the best new ways of weaving Europe together, and would have understood the huge dangers to European unity and legitimacy of overloading the center. But of such a far-seeing figure there is, to date, no sign on the European scene.

Lord Howell, a former British secretary of state, is chief opposition spokesman on foreign affairs in the House of Lords.