TCS Daily


'The Biggest Show in Town'

By Matthew Elliott - February 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Last February, the EU convened a 'Future of Europe' Convention made up of the 15 member states and 13 candidate countries to decide how an enlarged Union of 28 nations should operate. Under the chairmanship of former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Convention members have listened to the views of 'Civil Society'; studied options for reform in separate working groups; and are now in the process of drafting a 'Constitution for Europe'.

Giscard is fond of comparing the European Convention to the Philadelphia Convention that laid the foundations for the US Constitution. Whether a United States of Europe is on the agenda is a moot point (thorough coverage of the integrationist debate in the Convention can be found on www.european-voice.com and www.euobserver.com). What the Tech Central Station Convention Commentary will focus on as the final text is drafted and debated is how the European Constitution will affect public policy, in particular the environment, energy, healthcare, trade, defence.

This first Convention Commentary looks at the first 16 Articles of the Constitution, which were released in draft form by the assembly's Praesidium earlier this month and which are about to be debated in the plenary session of the Convention.

Environment: 'The Union's Objectives' of the Praesidium's draft articles commit member states to 'work for a Europe of sustainable development' and to promote 'environmental and social protection' (Article 3.2). Environmental NGOs such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are lobbying Convention members to enhance these objectives, arguing that the current draft reduces the level of commitment to environmental protection compared to the existing treaties. The RSPB want the objective to be 'a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment' and they want living standards 'to meet the needs of the present generation with respect for the rights of future generations.' If this implies greater enviro-fundamentalism, it would be a step in the wrong direction.

Energy: The 'shared competences' of the EU are policy areas where both member states and the Union 'have the power to legislate and adopt legally binding acts' with member states exercising their competence 'only if and to the extent that the Union has not exercised its' (Article 10.2). The inclusion of energy as a shared competence (Article 12.4) is a new development which has no legal basis in the current treaties. European legislation relating to this area has thus far been adopted on the basis of Article 308 of the existing treaties - a clause which allows the Union to legislate in virtually any new area it chooses.

Healthcare: The shared competences of the Union also include public health (Article 12.4), reflecting the recommendations of an earlier working group on 'Social Europe' that, in order to achieve the basic objective of 'a high level of physical and mental health', the Constitution should 'strengthen and enlarge EU competences in the field of public health' (Paragraph 31). Whether healthcare should be a Union competence is a moot point but from a public policy perspective the recommendation that there should be 'universal access to basic services' including health is potentially worrying. We will have to wait for later articles to confirm whether this would curtail private healthcare and force Europe down the disastrous British road of universal public provision.

Trade: The 'exclusive competences' of the Union cover policy areas where 'only the Union may legislate and adopt legally binding acts' (Article 10.1). The only exclusive competence in the draft Constitution unanimously accepted by Convention members is the customs union (Article 11.1). Unfortunately the draft articles do not include a commitment to free trade. They do include 'a free single market' as an objective (Article 3) but, at best, this implies free trade internally in the Union rather than externally with the rest of the world. At least one member has proposed an amendment to make it a 'customs union orientated towards international free trade'.

Trade Unions: Despite the assurances of one British politician that the Charter of Fundamental Rights would have 'no more legitimacy than a copy of the Beano' (a popular British comic), the Praesidium's draft incorporates it as 'an integral part of the Constitution' (Article 5.1), safeguarding its 'fully binding legal nature' (Annex II). One of the most worrying aspects of the Charter is that trade unions will find it easier to take strike action. 'Workers and employers, or their respective organisations, have ... the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels and, in cases of conflicts of interest, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action' (Article 28 of the Charter). This could overturn many trade union reforms and make Europe an even less competitive place to do business.

Defence: The draft Constitution gives the Union the competence 'to define and implement a common foreign and security policy, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy' (Article 10.4). It obliges member states to 'actively and unreservedly' support the CFSP 'in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity' and to 'refrain from action contrary to the Union's interests or likely to undermine its effectiveness' (Article 14.1). The CFSP is reinforced by the proposal to give the Union 'legal personality' (Article 4), allowing one representative to speak for the whole of Europe on international institutions such as the United Nations, NATO and the G8. With the current split between 'Old' and 'New' Europe over Iraq, however, these proposals could well be sidelined.

Having read this first Convention Commentary, you may be wondering why very few people have heard of the Convention if it is so important. According to the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, the most important European Union institution is the European Parliament, with 81% of EU citizens thinking it plays an important role in the life of the Union. The European Convention, in contrast, is only seen as being important by 39% of citizens. This disparity can be explained by the level of awareness for each institution, with 92% having heard of the Parliament and only 28% being aware of the Convention. People may not have heard of the Convention but it will shape the rest of their lives. As one commentator described it recently: 'It's the biggest show in town.'

Matthew Elliott is a columnist for Tech Central Station.
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