Too much champagne, not enough leadership

About the author
Richard Laming is Director of Federal Union, the British federalist campaigning organisation, and works in public affairs for commercial interests in London and Brussels. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Perhaps Ben Crum helped himself to a little too much celebratory champagne at the closing session of the European convention, but the draft constitution is hardly the triumph that he has painted. It is progress, certainly, but it’s not the democratic innovation that we were waiting for.

Collective decision-making without leadership is always a struggle. That’s a conclusion to be drawn from the history of the European Union, and it’s a conclusion supported by the conduct of the convention itself.

The Convention slowed down considerably towards the end when the Inter-governmental Conference (IGC) started to loom large. The results of the Convention will be forwarded to the national governments and Giscard became increasingly conscious of the national capitals peering over his shoulder.

Countries such as Germany and France replaced their initial nominated representatives with their foreign ministers. UK foreign minister Jack Straw was clearly itching to take over from Peter Hain and his delightful way with words. Giscard even flew to London to meet Tony Blair and take some instructions.

So, while the convention was more successful than its predecessors such as the Dooge committee and the Westendorp group in preparing for a forthcoming IGC, there is no need to get carried away. If the Nice treaty was an utter mess, the appearance this time may have improved but the deeper reality is equivalently chaotic.

The draft constitution that the convention has prepared is shot through with compromises on the substance and not, as Crum suggests, on the timing alone. (While there is not necessarily anything wrong with compromises – the movie I watch this evening will probably be the result of one – our system of government should be based on principles.) The new chair of the European Council is the perfect example.

Leadership miasma

The actual question to be resolved is not an institutional one but a political one: what should be the source of political leadership in the Union? And that is the question that the Convention was unable to address.

Rather than things becoming more clear, they became less so. We got a new post to be held for two-and-a-half years at a time (beaten down from five), with a mission of providing continuity to the work of the European Council. The Council meets four times a year for two days at a time, deploys no staff and takes no legislative decisions. If the European Council has played a weak role in leading the EU, it’s not for lack of continuity.

The post of president of the European Commission remains, with a new connection to the European elections (the political parties have the opportunity to put up candidates). The Commission will retain its right to propose legislation and will actually take on new powers in the increasingly sensitive areas of justice and home affairs.

The two posts of president of the Commission and chair of the Council will fall vacant at the same time. It will be interesting to see who the candidates will be. The former can be chosen as a result of a publicly contested election, the latter name will emerge mysteriously in a puff of white smoke.

This isn’t a principled decision: this is a botch. People like me who think that decision-makers should be elected and accountable rather than appointed and remote have still got plenty to get our teeth into.

Federal fog

The mess is summed up neatly by the fate of the word “federal”. It was included in an early draft of the constitution as a perfectly accurate description of the EU institutional system: multiple levels of government, each with a direct relationship with the citizen. It made sense to put the word in. It belonged. Taking the word out without changing any other of the central elements makes no sense.

The system is no less federal for the deletion of the word, however happy it made Peter Hain. Its replacement by the rather self-referential expression “in the Community way” is both linguistically ugly and descriptively opaque. That’s not careful design, that’s accident.

The only consolation is that this document will last rather less than the fifty years that Giscard grandiosely suggested. It is going to need rewriting sooner than that.