|Sunday, 2 April 2006||
Two years from now, the European constitution will be in force – certainly de facto and probably de jure, too. Never mind that 15 million Frenchmen and five million Hollanders voted against it. The Eurocrats have worked out a deft way of getting around them. Here’s how they will do it.
First, they will shove through as many of the constitution’s contents as they can under the existing legal framework – a process they already begun even before the referendums. Around 85 per cent of the text can, with some creative interpretation, be implemented this way. True, there are one or two clauses that will require a formal treaty amendment: a European president to replace the system whereby the member nations take it in turns to chair EU meetings; a new voting system; legal personality for the Union.
These outstanding items will be formalized at a miniature inter-governmental conference, probably in 2007. There will be no need to debate them again: all 25 governments accepted them in principle when they signed the constitution 17 months ago. We shall then be told that these are detailed and technical changes, far too abstruse to be worth pestering the voters with. The EU will thus have equipped itself with 100 per cent of the constitution. Clever, no?
Don’t take my word for it: listen to what the EU’s own leaders are saying. Here is Wolfgang Schüssel, Chancellor of Austria and the EU’s current president: “The constitution is not dead.” Here is Angela Merkel, leader of Europe’s most powerful and populous state: “Europe needs the constitution ? we are willing to make whatever contribution is necessary to bring the constitution into force.” Here is Dominique de Villepin, who, in true European style, has risen to prime ministership of France without ever having run for elected office: “France did not say No to Europe.” And, on Tuesday, our own Europe minister, Douglas Alexander, repeatedly refused to rule out pushing ahead with the bulk of the text without a referendum.
For the purest statement of the Eurocrats’ contempt for the voters, however, we must turn to the constitution’s author, Valery Giscarde d’Estaing. Here is a man who, with his exquisite suits and de haut en bas manner, might be said to personify the EU: so extraordinarily distinguished, as Mallarmé remarked in a different context, that when you bid him bonjour, he makes you feel as though you’d said merde. “Let’s be clear about this,” pronounced Giscard a couple of weeks ago. “The rejection of the constitution was a mistake that will have to be corrected.” He went on to remind his audience that the Danish and Irish electorates had once been presumptuous enough to vote against a European treaty, but that no one had paid them the slightest attention.
The same thing is happening today. Since the French and Dutch “No” votes, three countries have approved the text and three more – Finland, Estonia and Belgium – look set to follow in the coming weeks, which would bring to 16 the number of states to have ratified. At the same time, the European Commission has launched a massive exercise to sell the constitution to the doltish national electorates. Their scheme goes under the splendidly James Bondish title of “Plan D”. I forgot what the D stands for: deceit, I think, or possibly distain. Anyway, squillions of euros are being spent on explaining to us that we have misunderstood our true interests.
While all this is going on, the EU is proceeding as if the constitution were already in force. Most of the institutions and policies that it would have authorised are being enacted anyway: the External Borders Agency, the European Public Prosecutor, the External Action Service, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Defence Agency, the European Space Programme. The text is not, as the cliché of the moment has it, being “smuggled in through the back door”; it is swaggering brazenly through the front.
Whenever one of these initiatives comes before us on the constitutional affairs committee, I ask my federalist colleagues: “Where in the existing treaties does it say you can do this?” “Where does it say we can’t?” they reply. Pressed for a proper answer, they point to a flimsy cat’s-cradle of summit communiqués, council resolutions and commission press releases.
To be fair, this is how the European project has always advanced. First, Brussels extends its jurisdiction into a field of policy and then, often years later, it gets around to regularizing that extension in a new treaty. The voters are thus presented with a fait accompli, the theory being that they will be likelier to shrug their shoulders and accept it than they would have been to give their consent in advance.
This, indeed, is how the EU was designed. Its founding fathers understood from the first that their audacious plan to merge the ancient nations of Europe into a single polity would never succeed if each successive transfer of power had been referred back to the voters for approval. So they cunningly devised a structure where supreme power was in the hands of appointed functionaries, immune to public opinion. Indeed, the EU’s structure is not so much undemocratic as anti-democratic in that many commissioners, a la Patten and Kinnock, have been explicitly rejected by the voters.
In swatting aside two referendum results, the EU is being true to its foundational principles. Born out of a reaction against the Second World War, and the plebiscitary democracy that had preceded it, the EU is based on the notion that “populism” (or “democracy”, as you and I call it) is a dangerous thing. Faced with a result that they dislike, the Euro-apparatchiks’ first instinct is to ask, with Brecht: “Wouldn’t it be easier to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?”
To complain that the EU is undemocratic is like attacking a cow for being bovine, or a butterfly for being flighty. In disregarding public opinion, the EU is doing what it has been programmed to do. It is fulfilling its prime directive.
Sadly, we British are also exhibiting one of our worst national characteristics, namely our tendency to ignore what is happening on the Continent until too late. With a few exceptions – and here I doff my cap to the pressure group Open Europe, which is waging a lonely campaign to alert people to the danger – we are carrying on as though the French electorate had killed off the constitution, and so spared us from having to think about the European issue at all.
Once again, we are fantasizing about the kind of EU we might ideally like to have, rather that dealing with the one that is in fact taking shape on our doorstep. Will we never learn?