A positive outcome from a failed summit

By Richard Laming

I am looking for a silver lining in the collapse of last weekend’s talks on the European constitution. It is quite hard for me, as a devout pro-European, to find one, but I think it can be done.

Obviously, it would have been better if agreement had been reached on the broad outlines of the text proposed by the Convention. That way, we could proceed to ratification and implementation of the deal with the minimum of confusion; another Convention before the end of the decade could sort out some of the loose ends. But it was not to be.

The fact that the deal could not be reached shows the limitations of the intergovernmental method of decision-making. As long as each member state government goes into the talks with only a short-term national interest in mind, this is always going to be the likely result.

In the same way, at the time of the crisis in Iraq, the different member states failed to reach any kind of agreement. As a result, America went to war without broad European support – contrary to Tony Blair’s aim – and without UN involvement – despite what Jacques Chirac hoped for. Twice this year, the EU has proved that intergovernmentalism is not enough.

There is more to the European interest than merely the sum of the national interests. That is the whole meaning of European integration. It is why the European Union exists.

Some people have suggested that the failure of the summit shows that there is no superstate because national governments are in charge. But this is not a pro-European argument. If it were true, there would be no need for European institutions at all.

The point is this. There are some things that the citizens of the different member states have in common which meetings of their national government leaders alone can never express. That is why the EU includes institutions such as the Commission and the European Parliament.

It is surely no accident that policies on the environment and the single market which have been governed by the Community method of decision-making have been a success, whereas policies such as agriculture and foreign policy, governed by the intergovernmental method, have been a relative failure.

The silver lining of the collapse of the talks last weekend is the restatement it has made of this fundamental truth.

Europe will not integrate by itself. The EU will not become more democratic and accountable simply by accident.

It will only happen if the people who believe in it argue for it and win the debate. Opposition to the development of European democracy may be misguided but it is surely understandable. The European Union at present is hardly its own best advocate.

Silvio Berlusconi opened the summit last week by suggesting that the assembled heads of government ignore the draft constitution and talk instead about football and women. Perhaps he was hoping to reflect on the nomination of Zinedine Zidane, a Frenchman, as World Footballer of the Year or the victory of Rosanna Davison from Ireland in the Miss World contest.

The European constitution is not so trivial nor so fleeting. It is central to the future of Europe. If the right lessons can be learned from the summit – if pro-Europeans can take up the argument for a democratic and united Europe with new force and determination – then the collapse of the talks might have a positive outcome after all.

This article was written by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He can be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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