TCS Daily

Foundering Fathers

By Guglielmo Verdirame - February 21, 2003 12:00 AM

In 1787, the greatest statesmen and political minds from across a continent gathered in Philadelphia to lay the groundwork for a new nation conceived in liberty. They were led by George Washington, already a hero of the nation both for his victories on the battlefield and for his selfless decision to surrender command after those victories. Their proposals were submitted to ratifying conventions in each state, and the delegates to these conventions had been elected under wider suffrage rules than had ever existed before. Across the new-born nation, citizens vigorously debated these proposals, aware that in their country a unique experiment was taking place: the creation of a new fundamental social pact by the people, for the people.

In 2001, the heads of government of the fifteen member states of the European Union (EU), meeting in the small Belgian town of Laeken, decided that the time had come for Europe to have its "Philadelphia." The European Convention (also known as the Convention on the Future of Europe), now meeting in Brussels, comprises representatives appointed by national governments and parliaments, as well as by the existing EU institutions. Its aim is to give the people of the EU a Constitution which, in the words of a working draft of Article 1, would create "A Union of European States which, while retaining their national identities, [would] closely coordinate their policies at the European level, and administer certain common competences on a federal basis."

But as many European leaders salivate over the prospect of a federal Europe, its people yawn: in the latest Eurobarometer poll, conducted by the EU itself in October and November of last year, only 28 percent of respondents said they had heard of the Convention, and only 29 percent were inclined to trust it.

The problem is not that Europeans don't want a constitution - the poll suggests that a strong majority does. Indeed, most Europeans remain committed to the abstract ideal of a more integrated Europe, with over two thirds of the citizens in EU member states favoring common foreign and defense policies.

And despite some erosion in support for the euro as a result of the economic downturn, around 60 percent of citizens in countries using the euro continue to approve of the common currency. The elimination of trade barriers has been a boon to the Continent: a recent study found that, over the past ten years, the European single market has added 877 billion euros to EU income, increased annual European GDP by 1.8 percent, and created 2.5 million jobs. And with every expansion, the market gets larger and the benefits greater: Prime Minister Blair says that he expects the UK's GDP to be boosted annually by £2 billion (approximately $3.2 billion) as a result of the most recent wave of enlargement that will bring 10 new members, mainly from Eastern and Central Europe, to the EU. Moreover, many see a more integrated Europe, in outgoing Czech President Vaclav Havel's words, as "a broad-minded project for our continent's nations to peacefully coexist among themselves and with other parts of the world," one which "should finally end a two-thousand-year era of wars, conflicts, spheres of influence, cowardly compromises with evil and struggles for the dominance of the strong over the weak."

The EU has also changed the lives of ordinary Europeans. Barbara Melis, 32, lives a life that would have been almost unimaginable in her parents' generation: born on the secluded Italian island of Sardinia, she studied for her first degree at Italian and Spanish universities, taking advantage of the ever increasing number of exchange programs, partnerships and joint degrees between European universities. She then moved to London for three years, and she now divides her time between Brussels, Belgium and Strasbourg, France. She is fluent in Italian, English, Spanish, French and German. "Europe is becoming the new melting pot," she says. "There are four or five cities in Europe where I feel at home, and more and more people of my generation feel that way. All of this thanks to the European Union which gave us the opportunity to study outside our country of origin. Many of the people I know have benefited from EU programs and funds. A common European identity has already emerged." Sounding a similar note is Roland Freudenstein, a German, who works for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in the Polish capital of Warsaw. He says, "I think of my son. He has a German father, a Slovenian mother, he was born in Warsaw and he has a Hebrew name. So if he has any fatherland, at the moment it is Europe. I have a love for Europe in me, it is my home."

Signs of Fatigue

But there are also signs of public fatigue with the European project. Ireland - widely regarded as one of the more Europhilic countries - rejected the recent EU expansion in the first referendum, and the government had to concoct an embarrassing and constitutionally problematic solution: it asked the same question a second time in order to secure a majority for the "yes" vote. The euro was rejected in a referendum in Denmark in 2000, while in France, President Mitterand famously pulled a victory on the euro referendum by the skin of his teeth in 1992 (politicians have not yet dared put it to a vote in Britain or Sweden). Norwegians have twice turned down EU membership in national referendums. Moreover, the media in Europe often contain reports about the latest regulatory frenzy to come from the "Eurocrats in Brussels" accused of introducing legislation on the most bizarre areas, from applying noise pollution regulations to symphony performances to regulating the proportion of ingredients in chocolate.

Upon closer examination, some of these stories are actually debunked, but, like many urban legends, they bespeak popular attitudes and fears. Many Europeans have come to regard EU officials as arrogant, officious, and hyper-bureaucratic individuals who are not really accountable to anyone and whose work is surrounded by mystery, and, increasingly, Europeans are venting their frustrations. In December, for instance, over 4,000 French dairy farmers marched through the streets of Millau to protest the EU's ruling that only Greek cheese-makers could call their product "feta."

How can these apparently contradictory trends be accounted for? If so many Europeans see an abstract benefit in more integration, why have they been so lukewarm about actual EU projects?

Simply put, Europeans are disenchanted with the EU because the EU acts in ways that seem almost designed to alienate popular support. The Convention is a perfect case-in-point. Rather than a gathering of the brightest and most promising statesmen, capable of outlining Europe's future, the Convention looks more like a retirement home for politicians from Europe's past. Graciously returning from over 20 years of retirement to lead Europe into the twenty-first century is Convention President Valéry Giscard D' Estaing, recently described by the Economist as "cadaverous." His last major role on the world stage was as President of France in the 1970s; his bid for re-election foundered amidst controversy over his chummy relationship with Emperor Bokassa, the Central African dictator best known for eating his political opponents. Some of Giscard's views come as a blast from the past as well: he recently declared that Turkey's entry into the EU would be "the end of the European Union" and that "[t]hose who have pushed enlargement most strongly in the direction of Turkey are the enemies of the European Union." Assisting Giscard are the comparatively sprightly Convention vice-presidents: Giuliano Amato (age 64) and Jean-Luc Dehaene (age 62), former Prime Ministers of Italy and Belgium, respectively. This trio along with nine other members constitutes the Praesidium, which describes its main function as that of "lending impetus to the

With these premises, it is hardly surprising that the European founding fathers don't seem set to produce a weighty legacy of ideas, nor do they seem capable of providing satisfactory answers to the key problems of the Union. Despite some recent reforms that have enhanced the role of the European Parliament, the main legislative body within the EU remains the Council, which consists of representatives of national executives. The Council's edicts are "supreme" law in all member states of the EU, prevailing over democratically enacted national legislation.

According to the party line adopted by Eurocrats and many Europhile intellectuals, there is nothing unseemly about an executive body's assumption of supreme legislative authority. In the words of Judge Lenaerts of the European Court of First Instance and Professor of EU Law at Leuven, Belgium, "a clear distinction between legislative and executive action" need not be "based ... on the identity of the enacting authority." In other words, as long as we know if an act is a law or not, does it really matter if it is an executive or a parliament that adopts it? As a "new entity," the party line suggests, the EU should be exempt from such passé principles as the separation of powers. Consequently, as explained by the Praesidium in a "note" to the rest of the Convention, far from providing for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, as less enlightened polities have done, the Constitution of the EU should "sketch out pragmatically forms of cooperation between the institutions which represent different interests."

In a style typical of the imperious attitudes of EU officials that have come to exasperate many Europeans, the Convention has simply decided that it has no need for time-tested constitutional principles. After all, one can almost hear the Convention's members saying, as long as people like us are in charge, why would we want checks and balances, which would only slow down the implementation of our vision?

'Elite-led Gradualism'

Amazingly, this imperiousness in the face of democratic resistance has been a fundamental principle of the EU since its inception. "Elite-led gradualism" was the political strategy envisaged by Jean Monnet - one of the architects of the original European Community - and adopted as an unofficial strategy by his cohorts as a way of pushing the European project forward in the absence of popular support. The underlying idea was that a few in Europe understand the virtues of a European super-state and appreciate how to go about creating one, while the majority of the people are at best lukewarm about the "project." The people can however be led along gradually by the enlightened elite, until the federal union becomes a fait accompli.

Such elitism runs deep: Giscard d' Estaing recently commented haughtily during a speech at the College of Bruges that "it would be interesting to know what the people, especially the young people, think" about the name that the federal Union should have. Moreover, certain views are practically banned from the European debates. As the Economist recently noted, "the convention on the future of Europe... is in fact conducting its debate within tight intellectual boundaries," and Eurosceptical views are nowhere to be heard in Brussels. It was one of the great achievements of the American constitutional process that it managed to take into account many of the objections of the Anti-Federalists and the US Constitution was greatly enriched as a result; but the European elite is not prepared to pay any attention to the views of those who have reservations about the European project, notwithstanding the increasing popular support that they receive.

Popular support for the Eurosceptics extends even to members of the new generation of Europeans who have benefited tremendously from the EU. Adriaan De Mol von Otterloo, 32, a Dutchman who studied in Italy, Holland and the UK and who now runs a 1.5 billion euro fund in European equities, is worried about the political future of the Union. "European institutions are ivory towers. Asking a retired President [Giscard d'Estaing] who everyone assumed was in a rest home to write the constitution was just too much. Brussels and Strasbourg have become beautiful places for politicians who either retired or were unsuccessful at home to re-start their careers and accumulate wealth thanks to wonderful tax benefits."

Unsurprisingly, the European recipe for solving the thorniest and most divisive political and constitutional issues is not to go to the people, but rather to reach an agreement behind closed doors. For example, the one issue that exercises the otherwise moribund debate at the Convention is whether the best way to promote the integration of Europe is by strengthening existing European institutions or by reinforcing co-operation among states. But as debate on this issue reached its climax at the Convention, the French President, Jacques Chirac, and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, met and offered the solution: Europe should have two presidents, one elected by the European Parliament and one chosen by the national governments. With someone else solving the most divisive issue for them with a stroke of the pen, the delegates to the Convention can now resume their soporific routine.

What Giscard and his European colleagues seem not to realize is that, in democracies, "what people think" is not a curiosity: it is a command for those in power to execute. If the leaders of Europe don't realize this soon enough, the European project could create a backlash which would undermine the great achievements that European institutions have helped secure since the end of the Second World War: peace in Western Europe, prosperity, and the free movement of people, goods, and capital. Getting the Constitution wrong would be no minor accident. The discontent with monetary union and with many of the EU's policies already simmering beneath the surface could erupt; nationalism - the "beast" which has been dormant in Western Europe for many decades - could be offered a ready-made opportunity for resurgence. It is in our interests, as well as Europe's, to ensure that it doesn't come to that: history gives us no clearer lesson than that we should beware of the hubris of European elites when they become inebriated with a vision.

Guglielmo Verdirame teaches international law at Merton College, Oxford; Josh Chafetz is a graduate student in politics at Merton College, Oxford.

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