TCS Daily

Dude, Where's My Country?

By Joshua Livestro - June 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week's European elections were, for once, an interesting spectacle. I enjoyed watching the results come in from across Europe, not least because they confirmed my predictions made in this same place two weeks ago. Apart from getting personal satisfaction from being proved right, I was also intrigued by the spectacle of voters across Europe sending the same clear message to their governments: "Dude, where's my country?"

Turnout was down from its previous historic low, euro-skepticism was up, with skeptical parties across Europe winning around 10 percent of the vote. Provided they can get their act together, with around 70 seats, the skeptics could become a major force in the newly elected European Parliament. That would help to put the issue of the transfer of powers back to the member states firmly on the agenda.

Any normal organization would use these warning signals to reassess its priorities. If the public's response to ever closer union is ever greater skepticism, maybe the next step should not be one in the direction of increased federalization. But the European Union is a bit like the alien behind the wheel in the film Starman: "Red light stop, green light go, yellow light go very fast." And so, just a week after the Euroskeptic revolt, federal enthusiasts succeeded in driving the European project closer to their end-goal of a United States of Europe by producing a written constitution for the EU. In the form of a constitutional treaty, it was adopted by the 25 heads of government during Friday's Inter-Governmental Conference in Brussels.

Just like every cloud has its silver lining, so this treaty has its red lines. National vetoes on taxes, foreign policy, social security and the funding for the EU budget remain in place. The new double majority voting rules will give New Europe, the anti-federalist free market bloc of the ten new Eastern European member states and the UK, a permanent blocking minority. With the remaining Balkan states set to join the EU sooner rather than later, New Europe's blocking minority is destined to become an agenda-setting majority in the next decade. The adoption of an "early warning system" gives national parliaments the powers to scrutinize proposed European legislation for possible violations of the subsidiarity principle - probably the most significant devolution of powers from Brussels back to the member states since the start of the European project.

Unfortunately, it is destined to remain the only example of powers being handed back to the member states. In that respect, this treaty represents a big missed opportunity. The historic chance, for instance, to cut the European bureaucracies down to size. Behind the scenes, most European negotiators agree that there is plenty of scope for reducing the size of the EU's bloated civil service. The Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot admitted as much publicly in a recent speech at the Von Humboldt University in Berlin, when he called for the transfer back to the member states of EU powers in the field of cultural policy, parts of the Common Agriculture Policy and the structural funds, health policy and social affairs. Unfortunately, this treaty does nothing of the sort.

It also misses the opportunity to block the creation of a number of new powers for the European institutions. The European Charter of Fundamental Rights is a case in point. Its inclusion in the treaty could lead to the chaotic situation in which two rival courts (the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg) issue competing judgments on similar legal questions. Its inclusion also gives the judges in Luxembourg further scope to interfere in matters that should really be decided in the political arena. As the past 30 years have shown, the judges aren't exactly shy about using those powers. The creation of a European arrest warrant and a European public prosecutor is another example. It will inevitably lead to the creation of a European criminal justice system with its own criminal code, a completely unnecessary and unwanted development.

Finally there is the issue of what exactly is supposed to be the meaning of a "constitution" for Europe. If it is simply intended to be a set of rules that govern the cooperative effort called the European Union, that would be fine. In that case, though, why not just call it a treaty? It seems, however, that its federalist proponents have in mind something much more ambitious when they use the term constitution. What they mean by it is a document that creates a new legal entity that will function independently of its member states. It's a bit like a new Frankenstein's monster, then, only this one will have the power to negotiate treaties, propose legislation and administer justice.

This raises a fundamental question: where does the power of government in Europe really reside? It is this question which voters across Europe will have to answer in a series of referendums. Do they want government of the people, by the people and for the people? Or do they want Frankenstein rule?


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