Saturday, June 19, 2004

So much noise, so little substance

Last December the great leaders of the European Union failed to agree on its Constitution. Apparently after almost two years of discussion and negotiation there were insuperable barriers between the various member states.

After six months, many thousands of air miles covered by Bertie Ahern, more rows and negotiations as well as a set of European election results that can best be described as catastrophic for those self-same leaders, we have an agreement. Tony Blair, looking pale and bleary-eyed sounded his usual pompous self when he spoke about it:

"A new Europe has taken shape," the Prime Minister said. "A Europe in which Britain can build alliances and feel at home." What on earth is he talking about?

Describing the Battle of Valmy, fought by the ragamuffin armies of Revolutionary France and the professional troops of Prussia and Austria on September 20, 1792, Goethe said: “ From this place and from this day forth commences a new era in the world's history, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.”

Though the battle itself was more of a skirmish, the comment was accurate enough. The ragamuffin armies stopped the professional troops, effectively lifted the siege of Paris, saved the Revolution, made all its developments possible and, one might say grandiloquently, ushered in the modern world with all its good and bad aspects.

The sorry spectacle of the EU leaders stumbling out, clutching (metaphorically speaking) a verbose, complicated and barely comprehensible document cannot be described in those exhilarating terms. The new Europe looks remarkably like the old European Union with a few extra notches. In what way is Britain going to feel at home in it? For that matter, in what way is any other country going to feel at home in it?

As for alliances, well, anyone who knows any European history (Mr Blair not being among them) can recall all sorts of alliances Britain managed to build in the past.

What exactly has been achieved with all these alarums and excursions? My colleague has been analyzing the newly produced document in some detail and I have no desire to duplicate his heroic efforts. But a few things need to be recalled.

In the first place, even setting aside the fact that nobody outside the euro-elites sees any need for a Constitution, the one presented by Giscard d’Estaing’s Convention last year was a particularly unsatisfactory document. Over 130 pages of it provided for ever greater power going away from the member states and their elected legislatures to the cumbersome, undemocratic, unaccountable European Union institutions.

Far from defining clearly the relationship between the various institutions and the relationship between the state and the citizen, which is what, we presume, the europhiles mean when they talk of “a tidying up exercise”, this Constitution multiplies detailed and intrusive rules for the running of a centralized, corporatist, largely undemocratic, single state. (Let us not get involved in the argument of what is a superstate and whether the EU is going to be one. It is on track to being a state. That is all that matters.)

Far from limiting the powers of the state and its institutions, this Constitution effectively allows the EU to run all our lives according to some blueprint called “the European model”, which appears to have nothing to do with the people of Europe. If they stray from “the European model” they will be forced back into its straitjacket.

“The European model”, thus, takes its place in a long line of oppressive political ideas that appear to be representative of the people they control but are, in fact, abstractions to be imposed on them. Predecessors include “the popular will”, which had little to do with people and in whose name many tens of thousands were executed or murdered; “the masses” or “the working class”, under whose rule or dictatorship workers had a considerably worse life than under exploitative capitalism; and “the people” in whose name many millions were executed and murdered. “The European model” is different in that it is more benign. There will be no executions, no labour camps. But there will be no European democracy or European growth either.

Very little has been changed in that unsatisfactory document. The fact that the constitution becomes the source of the supremacy of European legislation remains; the “passerelle” clause, which will allow the European Council to decide that matters hitherto decided unanimously can be moved over to QMV will, presumably, remain; the matter of shared competence, which means, in effect, residual competence for the member states remains; the Protocol on the role of national parliaments, which makes it clear that these may be able to complain about the fact that some EU legislation breaks the rules of subsidiarity and proportionality but cannot make the Commission do anything about it has not been changed.

One can go on about it indefinitely. Those famous red lines, which nobody can remember have been preserved. The one about taxation does not matter, as the ECJ is just as effective as any Constitution in pushing through tax harmonization.

Legislation on social security can suddenly find itself under health and safety or the single market, thus negating Blair’s achievement. After all, that is what happened with the Working Time Directive.

Immigration is such a mess anyway, it matters little who is nominally in charge of it. As for defence or security, since we have gone along with the common foreign and security policy, signed up to every so-called anti-terrorist measure, whether it is that or not in realit, agreed to the existence of a Foreign Minister for the EU and are about to get enmeshed in the Galileo surveillance system, that red line can at best be described as a dotted one.

In return Blair has finally surrendered economic and employment policy to be full EU competence, effectively agreeing to an imposition of the sclerotic and deeply unsuccessful economic model that is destroying formerly successful countries like Germany and France.

He has effectively agreed to the full workings of Eurojust that will, we must assume, eventually supplant the British system of justice, which, with all its faults and difficulties, has been reasonably successful.

As for those famous institutional changes without which, we are told, the new European Union cannot function, they have become so opaque and complex that nobody but highly paid constitutional lawyer will ever understand them. Something of an irony this, since the original aim of the Convention was to increase transparency in the workings of the European Union and to bridge the gap between the peoples of Europe and “Europe”, a short-hand for both the euro-elite and the European project.

What they seem to have come up with is a more complicated, more detailed, more intrusive system that will increase the democratic deficit and further alienate the people from the government. Perhaps some of the great leaders should think of what actually preceded the Battle Valmy.

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