"We the peoples of Europe..."

Kalypso Nicolaïdis
18 December 2003

Why did the Brussels summit on the European Constitution collapse? Perhaps because it deserved to. The EU must move from government by elites who seek to manage, to one grounded on citizens’ support.

Who did it? Who is responsible for the failure of European heads of states and governments to agree to a proposed new Constitution at their inter-governmental conference (IGC) in Brussels on 12-13 December?

There is a temptingly easy answer. All fingers point at the same culprits: Spain and Poland, and their stubborn insistence on defending their narrow national interest to the bitter end.

The accusation rests on these two countries’ support for the settlement established at the Nice summit of December 2000, which is due to come into effect in 2004. No wonder. Nice gave Spain and Poland almost the same voting weights in the Council of Ministers as the ‘big four’: Germany, France, Britain and Italy.

Making it Our Own: a trans-European proposal on amending the draft constitutional treaty for the European Union

On the Federal Trust website, read the living document – open to consultation and signature – where concerned scholars and researchers across the continent (including Kalypso Nikolaidïs) argue for a clear and balanced European constitution

And yet, are the two “middle-sized” European states really to blame?

Defending one’s national interest is, after all, a strange accusation. Has any head of government ever come home to his or her electorate stating: sorry, this time around we made a bad deal but you will be glad to know it was in the interest of Europe? Even Germany’s notorious generosity in funding the EU has always been motivated by the national imperative of recovering its place at the heart of Europe. National governments promote the interests of the polity they represent – and rightly so.

In fact, it is a complete misunderstanding of what the EU is about to regard it as representing those who are allegedly able to “think in terms of the European interest”, in contrast to those (especially, by implication, the newcomers) who have not yet learned to do so.

The European Union is a wonderful machine for managing differences through creative negotiations. A positive-sum game is not one where some win and others lose; it is about finding solutions that benefit all its member countries and makes no one worse off. One of the best, close studies of the Union is called The European Rescue of the Nation-state. Alan Milward’s book shows how its makers have reshaped and renewed their national interests, not surrendered them.

From zero-sum to creative compromise

So why didn’t it happen this time? The defining issue of weighted voting which plagued the summit in Brussels could have been solved in at least three ways. Any one of the three would probably have been accepted by the two ‘culprits’, Spain and Poland.

The first compromise would have been simply to agree on a “rendezvous” clause where the matter of the voting weights – along with the other vexed issue of the composition of the Commission – would have been settled by 2009, when the constitution is due to come into effect.

The second compromise would have been to give Spain and Poland more representatives in the European parliament, where they had lost out at Nice in exchange for their “victory” on the voting front in the Council.

A third compromise would have been to modify the “double majority” formula suggested by the Convention in order to give middle-size countries a slightly greater capacity to form a blocking minority.

Why were none of these alternatives, or a combination of them, seriously considered?

In order to succeed, big multilateral summits generally require all those around the table to be willing and able to consider alternative creative compromises: to enter the game of give-and-take. There needs to be a shared sense of ownership of the overall result, a spirit not only shared by those who are asked to compromise more than others on specific issues, but also enables their closest friends to persuade them to do so.

It also helps to have mobilised support for the whole process in public and media forums outside the negotiations. This helps generate a sense that any failure matters for a large number of citizens, which in turn becomes a pressure on the leaders and negotiators to succeed. One would certainly have expected this to apply to a summit engaged in writing a “Constitution” for Europe.

Why, then, did these conditions not obtain in the last few weeks? It is easy to target another convenient scapegoat in the blaming game, the Italian presidency. For sure, it is not clear how “talking about women and football” over summit meals was going to help find a solution. At this summit, as with the rest of the presidency, Silvio Berlusconi showed himself to be out of his depth. But there are two other, more fundamental, reasons for the fiasco.

If it isn’t owned by all, it won’t work for any

The first reason why the summit failed is the recent behaviour of France and Germany and the fear shared by most of the small and medium-sized EU member-states of a re-emergence, after half a century’s lapse, of hegemonic power politics in Europe.

It is well known that the views of Berlin and Paris had more influence on Giscard d’Estaing’s drafting of the Constitution than opinions on the Convention floor. As a result, his proposed institutional reforms reproduced the Franco-German blueprint of January 2003 which gave France its president of the Council and Germany its (quasi-) elected president of the Commission (a result which happened to also be acceptable to Britain).

Little attention was paid to the fact that small member states in the EU only very reluctantly and unhappily bowed to the so-called “consensual” results of the Convention. France and Germany’s unwavering “take it or leave it” position throughout the IGC showed that they liked what Spain and Poland did not.

Meanwhile, Germany stubbornly refused to reopen the question of numbers in the European Parliament. This is no surprise, since it had won on the issue at Nice in exchange for its “generosity” on the weighted majority front. And yet, the draft Constitution annulled this latter concession by adopting a system where over 50% of the EU’s member-states and 60% of its population is required for a decision to be taken – the so-called “double-majority” formula which undoubtedly favours populous Germany above all other states.

In a previous era, when France and Germany played their role as the “motor of Europe” in a benign manner, other member-states may have acquiesced for the sake of Europe. But times have changed. Whether or not the two countries are heading for a history-making merger, as some French intellectuals dream, they are increasingly perceived as the two-headed dragon in the belly of Europe: not applying the rules of the game, but making them. So even as Gerhard Schröder confronted Polish prime minister Leszek Miller and Jacques Chirac evil-eyed Spain’s leader Jose Maria Aznar at their respective meetings on the eve of the summit, the two European giants could not assemble the rest of the EU in their support.

There is arguably a second, even deeper, reason for the failure in Brussels. It lies with the perennial question of democracy in Europe. In spite of its grand opening quotation from Thucydides – who spoke 2,000 years ago about the rule of the many – the draft Constitution belongs to the very few. Neither the Convention process nor, even less, the inter-governmental summit in Brussels succeeded in generating the interest and participation one would expect from a Constitution written in the 21st century.

European elites will have to act differently if they wish to create a ‘constitutional moment’ capable of generating the kind of momentum and enthusiasm that such an occasion ought to command. They need to listen better, to create a real agora for debate. They need to involve representatives of civil society and solicit the input of scholars. They need to write in a clear, accessible style. They need to draft documents that inspire and do not seek only to manage Europeans.

We Europeans must all make our Constitution our own. This is the message my colleagues and I sought to convey in a document published and signed by 100 academics from across Europe on the eve of the IGC. It contains some suggested amendments of style and substance which we believe would make the proposed Constitution worth fighting for.

It is not too late. A European Constitution can still come about. But all the continent’s leaders need to really reflect on what it would take to write a Constitution, one that is justified in beginning: “We the peoples of Europe...”

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData