Friday, May 14, 2004

Our indecision is final ... until next week

Helen Szamuely

What is one to make of the plethora of documents pouring out of the Irish Presidency just about a month before the Constitution is supposed to be decided and agreed on finally? The Summit will gather in Dublin on June 17 and agreement will, in theory, be reached on June 18 (which just happens to be Waterloo Day).

As we have reported on this blog, there have been signs that all is not well with that ailing patient, the consensus. One of the curious aspects of all these discussions that nouns, even abstract ones, acquire a personality. If the EU cannot for the moment have a legal personality, at least various other aspects of it can.

There is some logic to the Presidency having a will and intention of its own, since this is an accepted constitutional idea. One habitually refers to the American administration in personal terms, or to Downing Street as expressing opinions. The idea behind these and similar statements is that certain constitutional structures or simply accepted places of work and residence exist above and beyond the people, or, in the case of the EU Presidency, the member state, temporarily occupying them.

The EU seems to have moved beyond that and endowed all sorts of organizations and structures with a personality. For instance, many of the recent documents have centred round a "meeting of focal points" that took place in Dublin on May 4. Focal points can meet in geometry and, even, in geography. But in politics? Who took the chair? An ├╝berfocalpoint? And who took the minutes? How did all those focal points arrive to the meeting and what did they have by way of refreshment?

Even before what must have been a very odd meeting we had a very curious document (CIG73/04). This consisted of over 130 pages of various proposals of changing the text of the draft EU constitution (analyzed on the blog at length). The thing is, it was not a proposal. In fact, the document began with the uncompromising words:

"The Presidency wishes to stress that this is purely a working document. It is not intended to be seen in any way as a fresh overall Presidency proposal."

Perhaps they should have informed members of the British Government of this distinction, for on May 5, as we have already noted, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dene, referred to the "working document" as "the presidency’s proposal". Maybe Lord Willoughby de Broke was right when, speaking in the House of Lords debate on the latest developments in the constitutional discussions, he referred several times to the document as a "non-proposal" and pointed out that for a "non-proposal" it had rather a large number of new proposals.

Confused? We haven’t even started.

Then, following the meeting of "focal points" the Irish Presidency issued another document (CIG 76/04). It is not clear whether these are "proposals" but they are certainly "draft texts". Or so it says on page 1. In fact the document is "a series of draft texts on which there seems to be a likelihood of broad consensus in the context of an overall agreement."

This is carrying caution to the most extraordinary lengths. Are we to understand that a month before a final agreement is to be made, after 18 months of endless meetings of the Convention, whose task it was to produce an acceptable document, after an acrimonious and unsuccessful IGC, after months of shuttle diplomacy on the part of the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, the Presidency is still cautiously producing texts on which there seems to be a likelihood of broad consensus? And if it is still so difficult to reach a narrower, more focussed consensus, why is that self-same Presidency adding more and more contentious issues on EU foreign policy, taxation and other such matters?

There is a Ministerial meeting due on May 17 – 18 and the Presidency has tried to produce another document (CIG 75/04) for that. (At least one knows what a Ministerial meeting is.) In this the emphasis moves away from the somewhat contentious issues that had been discussed as far as one knows by those focal points and other matters are raised.

In the peramble the Presidency repeats that "[t]he principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" and that the matters discussed by those "focal points" probably do not need "further discussion at Ministerial level". Since these included quite weighty issues, one wonders when they will be discussed at Ministerial level.

So, what is going to be discussed on May 17 – 18, exactly a month before that decisive Summit? There is the scope of qualified majority voting (rather a thorny issue, one would have thought); the composition of the Commission, though the document says that it "can only be finally resolved as part of a balanced outcome on major institutional questions", clearly still undecided; and one or two other matters of lesser importance in general but probably quite significant to individual members.

There is a heartfelt plea at the end of the preamble: "To facilitate the most efficient and productive discussion, the Presidency would ask the delegations to intervene only on those issues of particular concern to them or where there is a particular point they wish to raise." As opposed to just talking for the sake of talking, one assumes. Well, we have all sat through meetings like that.

Where do we go from here? Will there be another Irish Presidency document next week? Will that be a set of proposals or non-proposals? Are we to have working documents or draft texts? Will Ladbroke’s open a book on it?

There used to be a rather wicked joke about the man who goes into the public library and asks for a copy of the French Constitution, only to be told rather snootily that the library did not stock periodicals. The EU Constitution is merely a draft and it has already become a periodical.

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