Will Europe be frightened into a constitution?

Peter Sain ley Berry

By Peter Sain ley Berry

This week’s super-summit in Berlin of the Big Three – France, Germany and the United Kingdom represented a tectonic shift in the way that Europe does business. And though the meeting merely confirmed the long apparent reality of a fault line between large and small member states, it was far from universally welcomed. The exclusion of the European Commission from the agenda forming policy discussions was significant. It was also a demonstration – paradoxically as pleaded in the draft constitutional treaty – of an enhanced role for member states. Whatever its apologists may say, this, de facto, was constitution making on the hoof.

For these three states, finding agreement between themselves on a range of major economic proposals was clearly more important than the side issue – as they might have seen it – of the actual draft European Constitution, now languishing in disfavour. In terms of its major objectives the trilateral big-state format worked and worked well on this occasion. It will serve as a precedent. Raw member state power, untrammelled by representation from any of the European institutions, was able to put on the table agreed proposals to revive and reform the Continental economy. Good news – well, up to a point.

For those states, excluded from this inner club, found the demonstration of ‘can-do’ power inflammatory. It was especially so for Italy which, but for Mr Berlusconi’s earlier failures in even elementary diplomacy towards the Germans, might have been invited to join the Big Three in Berlin. Italian outrage and insult were understandable – though calling the whole thing as the Italian Prime Minister did, ‘a mess,’ was hardly a constructive characterisation (nor for that matter particularly wounding). For the real mess is the paralysis of effective decision that results from Europe’s lack of appropriate constitutional arrangements and for that the Italians must admit at least a part of the blame.

Yet the same sense of unease at what was happening in Berlin was also being widely expressed among other excluded states. And not only medium sized nations like Spain and Poland whose size is such that they can genuinely aspire to some national clout on the European stage. All accept that groups of countries here and there have every right to come together to discuss and debate particular issues, especially where these have a significant regional dimension. But Wednesday’s meeting of the Big Three was something different, something new, and for les exclus, something potentially hazardous.

The special relationship between France and Germany, forged in the aftermath of three wars in eighty years, has been acceptable in the European context because it did not dominate a European Union of 15 member states. But a group of three, representing over half the wealth of the expanded EU, is altogether different and is, they say, cause for concern. So they too are asking what a constitution is for and whether it is not time to give the constitutional talks a new impetus so as to put some sort of brake on future irregular initiatives by the Big Three.

Yet anyone listening for a ringing joint declaration from the Big Three of the importance of securing agreement on the draft European Constitution, in order to provide for more adequate decision making, would have been disappointed. Although France and Germany have publicly expressed the desirability of moving ahead and securing an early agreement, possibly even before the European elections in June, the British are far more hesitant. The Constitutional talks, they say, are a matter for the Irish and they are not putting any money on the outcome either way.

The British Prime Minister knows the scepticism with which European projects are viewed in Britain and the pressures that he would face for a referendum were a constitution ever agreed. He can live without such domestic difficulties and it suits him therefore to wash his hands of the constitutional project. Meanwhile, through Berlin type talks, he can make progress with the economic agenda which given that 60 per cent of Britain’s trade is with the EU, becomes ever more important.

One small state took a very different line however. Ireland, the current holder of the EU Presidency, seemed to go overboard to welcome the Berlin summit. And in case anyone should have missed the message they specifically welcomed it not only from the national viewpoint of the Irish State, but from the position of the EU Presidency as well.

This enthusiasm was genuine enough. The Big Three were after all meeting in advance of next month’s Spring European Council at which the thorny question of how to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world, will be tackled. As EU Presidency, Ireland will hold the reins at this meeting which will struggle to find ways of replicating in Continental Europe the successes of the Celtic Tiger economy. The Big Three have given an important heave to the Irish wheel here, for which the Irish are grateful.

But they must also have been hoping that in return for their lead in attempting to allay small country fears about the Berlin summit, the Big Three would have had something more positive to say about the constitution – the other major plank in the Irish Presidency’s programme. At the European Council the Irish will present an account of the wide consultations they have been undertaking with other member states on this issue since taking over the Presidency in January.

They will present a list of areas of disagreement – originally about 20 according to Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach – and how many of these appear capable of resolution. Above all they will have to make a judgement, which they must then sell to the other member states, as to whether there are reasonable prospects of resolving the contentious issues – including the question of voting rights in the European Council – the rock on which the last constitutional talks foundered.

“In the wider perspective Ireland believes that the best way for Europe to advance is together within the Union,” said Dick Roche, the Irish Minister for European Affairs this week. “That is why an agreement on a new Constitutional Treaty that will help make the European Union more effective is so important. That is the reason the Irish Presidency is investing so much time and energy in this key objective.”

With the European Council summit now only four weeks away time is running out to arrive at acceptable compromises and to create the requisite political will. But the curtain of an extra-constitutional Europe has been lifted a fraction. And the sight has inspired real political fear. For the recalcitrant European donkey the stick may yet prove mightier than the carrot. The Big Three may indeed frighten Europe into a constitution.

This article was contributed by Peter Sain ley Berry, editor of Europaworld, who may be contacted at enquiries@europaworld.org. The opinions expressed at those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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