Thursday, June 16, 2005

A "pause for reflection"

The general sentiment is that the constitution is dead but, in declaring a "pause for reflection", the European leaders are keeping the priest at bay and are denying the poor creature its last rites. Its soul will languish in whatever purgatory is reserved for failed treaties, while the "colleagues" pick at the carcase occasionally, to salvage the juicier morsels before they rot.

Jack Straw's earlier optimism – or wishful thinking – that the beast would be given a clean death and a Christian burial, does not seen to have been justified, suggesting that there is some residual hope that it can be brought back to life, even though, in biblical terms, its body "stinketh".

Any which way they play it, this must be a massive blow to the collective morale of the "project". From its triumphal relaunch in 1999, after the dark days of the Santer commission, the best part of six years have been expended in bringing it to this stage. But, as in 1954, the "colleagues" have over-extended themselves and once again it has been the French – this time with the aid of the Dutch – who have brought it crashing to earth.

There is absolutely no doubt, however, that the ambitions remain and I am sure that the historical parallels with 1954 have not escaped the colleagues. Then, the "project" went underground, only to re-emerge in triumph in 1957 as the Treaty of Rome.

However, while there are parallels, there are also differences. Then there were the Six, all enjoying the fruits of the post-war economic boom. Now there are 25, with most of the large economies in serious trouble and without any real ideas of how to counter the deteriorating situation.

Then also, there was political stability in both German and France, with Adenaueur and de Gaulle, two leaders with clear ideas of where they were going. Today, we have Schröder, on his way out politically, with Chirac not far behind. Soon too will go Berlusconi and perhaps Blair. It is unlikely that any "new guard" will be burning with enthusiasm to resucitate the corpse.

So… in the immortal words, quo vadis? Are we seeing the collapse of the "project" or simply a temporary hiccup? Certainly, there have been crises before, and the project has survived. In fact, its sheer determination to survive has been little short of miraculous.

But, in one important and perhaps vital way, everything has changed. This is that "emperor has no clothes" moment, when the people have seen the ghastly pink, blotchy flesh, its wrinkles and creases, and things can never be the same. The aura of invincibity is gone… nothing is "inevitable" any more. And, if you listen hard, that sound in the distance might just be… the fat lady singing.

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