It’s all kicking off. Again… Ever more people are starting to come to the opinion that 2007 is going to be one of the EU’s most important years. I’m not one of them…
One of the driving forces increasingly seems to be Italy’s Romano Prodi, former President of the European Commission – who’s currently wating to see if he’s had a stay of execution following his resignation on Wednesday, with Italy’s President today asking him to stay in the job (as long as he can pass a vote of no confidence…)
First up, just over a week ago, nine member states (Italy along with Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Spain, France, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg) made a joint declaration calling for a “social Europe”, alongside any revival of the constitution. No one knows precisely what a “social Europe” might be, but they all seem to think it sounds nice.
Then, back on Tuesday, Italy and Spain made a joint statement: “We are going to unite the efforts of two countries that have ratified the EU constitutional treaty with Germany so that this semester will be a time in which we move from thought to action, from stagnancy to initiatives”. We’ve heard all this before, of course, but they actually seem to have got a bit of momentum up this time…
At the same time, the two countries voiced their fears that Tony Blair’s exit from British politics could screw the whole project. Because – despite the fact he’s done little to prove it in recent years – Blair is the most europhile Prime Minister Britain’s had since Heath, and whoever follows him in to Number 10, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to be as willing as Blair has been to bend over backwards to try and get the EU to work (remember Blair’s efforts to reform the Common Agricultural Policy by offering to give up Britain’s rebate? Brave stuff…)
Also on Tuesday, EU Regional Aid Commissioner Danuta Hubner (no, I’d never heard of her either) came out with a schoolmistressy warning to all 27 member states about how the EU could collapse without progress on the constituion. Possibly true – but if that’s the case, you’d think that they’d all realise that now’s the time for compromise to ensure that the most sceptical member states are happy, rather than to push ahead with the existing text in the vague hope that a sizable chunk of the continent (including Britain, France and the Netherlands) will change their minds about the thing. Ho hum…
Then, despite the surprise news about Prodi on Wednesday, on Thursday the Czech Republic (which cancelled its referendum after the Franch and Dutch votes) decided to push ahead ahyway, calling for an easier to understand version of the existing constitutional treaty. A kind of “EU Constitution for Dummies”, if you will – another lovely demonstration of one strand of thought amongst the EU’s political elites: French and Dutch voters rejected the thing because they were too stupid to understand it. (Which may be true, to be fair – the thing was so long and convoluted I doubt even the people who drafted the thing fully understood it all…) What the Czechs don’t seem to be doing (and I really wish someone would) is proposing the sensible alternative: a constitution based on that of the United States. Short, sweet and to the point.
Naturally enough, though, it can’t all run smoothly – especially with France in the middle of an election campaign that’s looking increasingly tight and unpredictable, with candidates desperate for any stick to beat their opponents with. As such, early in the week a spat about sovereignty emerged – swiftly followed by presidential hopeful Nicholas Sarkozy calling for an abridged version of the constitution. Just as some have argued that the French people used the constitutional referendum to express annoyance with their national leaders, rather than with the constitution itself, the presidential election could well see France’s next president commit to a course of action on the constitution purely to gain votes. Which is hardly ideal, but still. Such is democracy.
Next week this is all likely to continue – especially if Prodi survives and Italy gets back in the fight. This coming Wednesday ministers from Spain and Luxembourg are visiting the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee, discussing ways to get the remaining 9 member states (France, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal and the UK) to ratify the existing treaty. Which simply isn’t going to happen.
Meanwhile, various people are proposing alternatives – from former Convention on the Future of Europe member Hubert Haenel, French Green MEP Gerard Onesta, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, Italian Minister of the Interior Giuliano Amato, former French Prime minister Laurent Fabius, and countless others.
Many of the suggestions aren’t up to much, failing the fundamental test of “would every single member state be happy with this?” But at least they acknowledge that the existing text is no longer an option.
Even so, somewhere out there is a workable solution. The only question is, will the people with the power to adopt it ever be able to find the thing? There’s lot of activity at the moment, with various countries running around looking for ways to press ahead and convince others of their position. But with Britain currently stuck ostrich-like, seemingly paying no attention whatsoever to the constitutional debate on the continent, with France embroiled in tight elections for at least another couple of months, and Italy’s pro-EU Prime Minister currently blanacing on a knife edge, the chances of any meaningful agreement during the German EU Presidency of the first half of this year looks increasingly unlikely, no matter how hard some of the more enthusiastic countries to have adopted the existing text might be trying to get one. the whole thing is looking increasingly unlikely to end.
If we can’t even agree on something as fleeting and trivial as how best to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, how the hell are we going to be able to agree on something as complex and important as the blueprint for the running of the EU for the next 50 years? So, 2007 as one of the EU’s most important years? Not for any positive reasons. It could well be the year when the differences become so fundamental that the EU splits into two tiers – but even that is (sadly) unlikely. By far the most probable outcome of all these little manourverings to push forward with reform is failure and further stagnation. I can’t see any room for hope as long as Britain remains on the sidelines – and especially while the EU’s single biggest problem, the Common Agricultural Policy and its impact on the budget, remains undiscussed.