October 25, 2007

October 25, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

Pushing paper

A rose is a rose by any other name - and the European constitution is still a constitution even if it is now called the European Reform Treaty.

By changing the name and giving the document a nip and a tuck, the heads of European government hope to sneak through major institutional reform of the European Union. It may be recalled that major institutional reform under the name of the European Constitution was exactly what the citizens of France and the Netherlands rejected two years ago, when they were allowed to vote on the issue.

When people talk of the democratic deficit of the European Union, this is exactly what they mean. The progress of the EU has always been two steps forward and one step back or one step forward and two steps back, depending on how you look at it. Even when Europeans oppose further EU integration, their leaders blithely march on. Being an EU member has been compared to riding a bicycle - either you keep moving or you fall off. That's a truly amazing way of looking at political institutions.

Last week, the leaders of the 27 EU governments met in Lisbon to hammer out the new version of the rejected European Constitution. Wouldn't you know, it it looks a lot like the old one, though, as the changed title suggests, there is now an effort to downplay its significance and make it sound more innocuous.

While the creators touted the ill-fated constitution as a grand founding document, the Reform Treaty is being billed as merely an adjustment of existing documents. Nevertheless, it still resembles the old document in that it reshapes European institutions, including the EU presidency, and changes voting procedures among the EU's some 300 million people. While the treaty also gives more power to the EU parliament and to the national legislatures, it is also true that the EU now has more intrusive power into the laws of its member nations than the U.S. federal government here has over the states here.

Much less fanfare has accompanied this set of negotiations, and most EU leaders would like to take this treaty home for a quick parliamentary ratification. Former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing has aptly warned that "by avoiding referendums, the EU "will reinforce the idea among European citizens that the European constitution is a mechanism organized behind their backs by jurists and diplomats." The voters of five major European countries believe they should be consulted in a national referendum, and one country at least is constitutionally obliged to hold a popular vote (Ireland). According to an FT/Harris poll, 76 percent of Germans, 75 percent of Brits, 72 percent of Italians, 65 percent of Spaniards and 63 percent of the French think the document should be put to a vote. Clearly, there also is an information deficit regarding the treaty; 61 percent of Europeans in the poll say they are "not at all familiar" with the content of the treaty.

The British, not surprisingly, are among the most opposed. The island nation has always been suspicious of anything coming out of the continent; it remains true to form after 30 years within the EU. Over 50 percent believe the treaty will have a negative impact on the EU.

Indeed, in Britain the issue of the EU is only adding fuel to the fires that have been lit under Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown. After an all-but-flawless start following Tony Blair last summer, Mr. Brown has had a disastrous fall. This is mainly due to self-inflicted wounds. He caused expectations to grow that he would hold parliamentary elections in November, but then dashed them again when opinion polls showed that the Labor Party would lose.

The British Tories have not lost any time pouncing. They are not just deriding Mr. Brown for his lack of spine, but also demanding a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty. Mr. Brown remains adamantly opposed to a referendum for obvious reasons. However, a lot of people are skeptical of the project of European integration, precisely because it is an elite driven project that has not been able to bring along the citizens of many of its 27 countries.

Democracy is under siege in many parts of the world, but Europe ought not to be one of them.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times