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The constitution crumbles

Posted by Richard Sunday, May 23, 2004

Booker's Notebook

"The yobs of Europe" shrieks Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian on the latest twists in the tale of the proposed EU constitution. The focus of her wrath are those "British hooligans", led by Jack Straw, who have been "breaking up the negotiating table".

Perhaps Ms Toynbee should not be blamed for displaying such ignorance since, as a good "little Englander", she has taken her view from the laughably parochial coverage given to this story by most of the British media.

The truth is that the bid to give the EU a constitution is in far more trouble than most people have yet realised; and the problems arise, not just from Mr Straw fighting for Britain's "red lines", but from almost everyone involved.

Last summer, when Giscard d'Estaing handed over his draft constitution to the heads of government, he warned them to approve it as it stood, because otherwise it might unravel completely - which is precisely what has happened.

Since the first talks on the draft foundered last December on the insistence by Spain and Poland that their voting rights must not be reduced, behind-the-scenes negotiations have thrown up more and more disagreements.

Reflecting this, the Irish presidency two weeks ago published 130 pages of amendments already agreed to Giscard's draft treaty, followed a week ago by 99 pages of new proposals.

Spain and Poland are still banging the table on voting rights, opposing German demands that a "qualified majority" must be reduced to only 55 per cent of the EU's population, which would give the Franco-German alliance the power to call the shots.

Poland's position is further complicated by the fact that its new prime minister, Marek Belka, recently lost a parliamentary confidence vote. This leaves him as a powerless lame duck until a general election in August, when he is likely to be replaced by a fiercely nationalist successor.

Hungary's "red line", contradicting one of Giscard's key proposals, is that each country must still have a commissioner. The Poles, Italians, Maltese and four other nationalities have laid down another on the inclusion of "God" in the constitution.

There are now proposals on the table for no fewer than three separate EU "presidents' - one for the Commission; another, according to a cumbersome troika formula, for the Council of Ministers; a third, chosen for two and a half years, for the European Council, which is now to be included in the treaty for the first time as a fully-fledged "Community institution" and as, in effect, the government of Europe. The council will also have the power to change the constitution without further treaties.

Compared with all this, the breaching of Mr Blair's own "red lines" over foreign policy and judicial law is little more than a sideshow.

The fact is that Giscard's draft is dead, and the prospects of having a constitution on which Mr Blair can hold his referendum look more distant by the day. The pity is that this may deprive us of that real national debate through which we could reflect on whether we wish to remain part of such a shambles at all.