An interesting discussion yesterday between Andrew Duff and Michael Moore, Liberal Democrat spokespeople on constitutional affairs in the European Parliament and foreign affairs in the House of Commons, respectively. (It was at a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference.) The subject was what to do with the constitutional treaty, a question that has been rather quiet lately but which is starting to come back very loudly.
Andrew Duff is one of the leading thinkers on federalism in Europe, so there was naturally a lot of good sense in what he said. The military deployment to Lebanon showed, he said, the important role that Europe found itself playing in the world, and showed how profound was the need for political integration.
In reviving the constitutional issue now, it was ironic, he said, that federalists were advocating a narrow agenda for the forthcoming debate, whereas it was the nationalists who were trying to open everything up again. The constitutional text embodied a careful and delicate balance among the member states and among the institutions; great care was needed not to upset it now.
Andrew Duff’s preferred plan for the future will be published next month, after careful checking of the translated versions (he was very keen on the correct nuances), and I would not want to get his proposals wrong. In brief, he has some ideas to restructure the text to make it clear the distinction between the constitutional parts and the policy parts, and suggests five areas in which alterations to the text might deal with public criticisms and uncertainty.
Michael Moore, on the other hand, took a different tack. (By the way, this is a different Michael Moore from the bearded American film-maker, in case you were wondering.) The Scottish Michael Moore paid tribute to Andrew Duff’s work on the substance of the European constitutional treaty, but allowed himself to ask whether this substance was really the major issue right now.
The bigger problem was not a technical one – how to finesse the current text – but a political one. The very case for Europe is getting harder to sell, and the level of integration as represented in the treaties should not be allowed to out-run public support.
In his own constituency in the Scottish borders, he said that there were some very good examples of how we are better off in the EU. For example, knitwear manufacturers found themselves caught up in a trade war with the United States over bananas, and it took collective action by the EU to bring the dispute to a satisfactory conclusion. The day-to-day relevance of the EU needed to be clearer before a renewed constitutional effort could be successful.
This is, of course, a British argument. In many European countries, that day-to-day relevance is much clearer already, and it is not obvious that they are necessarily willing to wait for a British moment of clarity. The onus is on British supporters of the constitutional process to ensure that their fellow citizens are clear on what the EU is doing and what it is for, and they have to start doing it now.