By Brendan Donnelly
The Laeken European Council last December set up a “Constitutional Convention” under the chairmanship of the former French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. This Convention, bringing together representatives of national governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament and other interested parties, will prepare the work of the succeeding Intergovernmental Conference, which has been called to decide the institutional changes necessary for EU enlargement. The British government hopes that the recommendations of the Convention, due to be published in some twelve months time, will be helpful to its strategy for holding and winning a referendum on the euro in the course of 2003. It hopes, in particular, that the Convention’s recommendations will “prove” to the British electorate that the EU has for ever renounced any ambitions to become a “superstate”. In this, the British government is likely to be disappointed. This is not necessarily because of any intrinsic fault in the Convention’s probable recommendations. The danger is rather one of inappropriate expectations, a recurrent feature of British governmental attitudes to European institutional questions.
At the purely technical level, there are a number of reasons limiting the weight that can reasonably be given to the Convention’s work and recommendations. It is a preparatory body, with a wider membership than the national governments who will eventually negotiate the changes in the EU necessary to facilitate enlargement. The Convention’s conclusions will influence, but not define the outcome of the succeeding IGC. Anyone who genuinely wants to know about Europe’s future institutional structure will need to wait until 2004, not 2003. It will not be possible for the government to hold in 2003 a euro referendum in this country claiming that the EU’s future institutional structure has been settled by the Convention. It will not have been.
The heterogeneity of the Convention’s membership anyway makes it unlikely that it will be able to agree on all issues. Alternative proposals, minority reports, dissenting opinions are almost inevitable. Where agreement is reached, it will often be at the cost of ambiguous and apparently contradictory formulations. There will be elements in the Convention’s final text reassuring to the British government, and elements it will want to ignore. The Convention’s work will not be like that of the IGC, where fifteen governments will be negotiating under the discipline of needing to produce for a deadline an agreed new treaty text. It is normally only that discipline which finally brings consensus, after back-breaking weeks of negotiation. It is difficult to foresee the Convention’s being willing or able to imitate that process.
But quite apart from these technical considerations, there is another flaw in the British government’s apparent approach to the Convention. It is the misconception that its own minimalist views about Europe’s institutional future are today widely shared in continental Europe. They are not. Any coherent consensus arrived at in the Convention will be a long way from the official British governmental line, with its traditional hostility to the central institutions of the Union. It is true that on a number of individual issues, such as labour reform, the work of the Council of Ministers and the powers of the European Parliament, the British government can form ad hoc alliances with other governments which are more or less effective. It is also true that many, probably a majority of European national governments are more eager than they were to draw a line between European and national or regional legislation. That is why the next IGC will be looking at a possible “catalogue of competences”, defining European and national powers. But none of this means that the British government’s traditional hostility to European integration through European institutions has become the mainstream opinion of the EU.
In the spectrum of views among European governments on Europe’s institutional future, the British government remains at one sceptical extreme. This does not necessarily make its ideas objectively wrong. But it does limit its ability to secure what it would regard as an attractive outcome from gatherings such as the constitutional Convention set up at Laeken. In particular, there remains a great gulf of understanding between the British government and most of its partners on the role of the European Union’s central institutions.
The reflex reaction of most British Ministers is to see the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice as natural vehicles for the development of a European “superstate”, whose competences must be restricted. This reflex is much less pronounced in the governments of other member states, who rightly see the existing institutional structure of the European Union as having served Europe well. Of course, Britain’s partners join with her in rejecting the prospect of a European superstate. But very few of them see the present institutional structure as seriously likely to produce any such outcome. There is in continental Europe interest in and appetite for retuning Europe’s institutional structure, but very little for its dismantlement. It has been an error of successive British governments to acquiesce in Eurosceptic abuse of the European Union’s central institutions as the root cause and manifestation of a burgeoning federal European superstate. Since the Union’s institutions are not going to disappear, it will therefore always be open to Britain’s Eurosceptic press to claim that Britain itself is on track to disappear in an homogenized federation directed from Brussels. Nothing the Convention decides is remotely likely to change that.
Taking their tone from the adversarial nature of British politics, most political commentators in this country will probably greet the outcome of the Convention next year in one of two ways. They will either conclude that it is a triumph for the “federalists” and that an unpatriotic government allows Britain’s nationhood to continue in a state of clear and present danger; or they will conclude that the British government has finally persuaded its European partners of the dangers of the course upon which they seemed set, and Europe as a result will now be organised in a less integrative, more decentralized and intergovernmental fashion. It is a sign of the murky nature of the European debate in this country that the British electorate may be asked to choose between these two caricatures.
The government may wish to recall what happened to John Major when he came back from Maastricht claiming “game, set and match”. His claim was precisely to have “put an end to federalism”. The trouble is that the wholly unthreatening concept of “federalism” is intrinsic to the way the European Union is run. To pretend that it is not is simply a recipe for confusion and accusations of bad faith. That would be the worst possible start for a euro referendum campaign, in which clarity and trust would be at so much of a premium.
Brendan Donnelly was formerly a Conservative MEP and is now a member of the Liberal Democrats. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. This article was first published by GrahamBishop.com, 13 March 2002.