Europe at fifty: towards a new single act

Philippe Herzog
21 June 2007

The European Union may have turned fifty but it has yet to overcome its midlife crisis. At its summit in Brussels on 21-22 June 2007, the German presidency has promised to do exactly that and fulfil the promise contained in its sober Berlin declaration, "to place the European Union on a renewed common basis before the European Parliament elections in 2009". There exist many divides in Europe; between rich and poor countries, old and new members, big and smaller states. But none has been more relevant to the German presidency than that between "constitutional purists" who argue that the eighteen states who have ratified the constitution cannot revisit their votes, and "constitutional minimalists" who point out that - according to rules of the games unanimously agreed to - the French and Dutch "no" votes cannot be overridden.

The combination of Angela Merkel's determination to reach a compromise on the way forward and Nicolas Sarkozy's determination to clear the ground for what most matters to him - his national programme of reform - has meant that we are heading towards a compromise at the Brussels summit around Sarkozy's idea of a "mini" or "simplified" treaty.

Philippe Herzog is director of the think-tank Confrontations-Europe

His website is here In this event, neither side will have won the day. Constitutional purists will have to give up the belief that with a bit of cosmetic surgery, like a "social annex", misguided publics can be made to vote the right way a second time. Even if they could, how sad and lacking in ambition it would be if the first constitution for Europe were to be passed with the narrowest of majorities, coercive popular "revotes" or discrete parliamentary decisions, against a background of both widespread opposition among European citizens and a general lack of enthusiasm. But minimalists too will need to accept that the constitutional ambition will not simply disappear in the name of a Europe of results and pragmatism. Too much symbolic capital has been invested in it. In short, the idea of a constitution will and must remain (like Schrödinger's cat) both alive and dead in the years to come - even if under a different name such as "constitutional charter".

Between maximum and minimum

This does not mean giving up on the idea. Opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Europeans think the European Union needs a constitution - not this constitution. If "making it our own" is to be the motto of their constituents, politicians must give time to time and resist the temptation to play Russian roulette with the idea of a constitution. Indeed, pundits tend to forget the second part of Nicolas Sarkozy's message in autumn 2006 ("EU reform: what we need to do"), which opened up such a perspective for after 2009. We believe even more time will be needed before Europeans are ready to engage in such an exercise, on this occasion in a truly inclusive and creative manner.

In short, the way forward lies with an old recipe of diplomatic and democratic deal-making: sequencing - institutional reform in the short run followed by a "Europe of result" in the middle term, and a constitution in the longer term.

In the short term, the name of the game in Europe today is to produce institutional reform while avoiding referenda at all cost. For the constitutional purists this still means asking "what is the maximum we can get away with?"; for the minimalists, the question is "what is the minimum reform we must accept?"

Kalypso Nicolaïdis is director of the European Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Among her publications is (as co-editor) The Federal Vision (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 2003).

Her homepage is here

Also by Kalypso Nicolaïdis in openDemocracy:

"We the peoples of Europe...'"
(18 December 2003)

"Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition"
(21 February 2005)In trying to cater to both these sides, the German fudge will set out the outline of a future text to be negotiated by an intergovernmental conference in autumn 2007 which will recycle most of part one of the draft constitution "with the necessary presentational changes resulting from the return to the classical method of treaty change" as stated by the German presidency. In spite of such an apparently straightforward bargain, Merkel, Sarkozy and Josè Manuel Barroso should not underestimate the conflictual dimension of this new treaty reform. The success of the whole enterprise depends on publics "buying in" the sleight of hand implied in relabelling tricks therein, including dropping the word "constitution".

The (semi)-consensual adoption of the institutional provisions of the constitutional treaty should not obscure the fact that very painful concessions were made at the time, not in the name of an "institutional package" but in the shadow of a perceived constitutional moment. If the small and medium countries ended up acquiescing in the death of the rotating presidency or the loss of their commissioner it was not because they "gained elsewhere in the package" but for fear of bringing down the constitutional dynamic altogether. Why should they do so in the new context?

However contested some of the issues surrounding the forthcoming intergovernmental conference, it will be even more necessary to achieve the ambitions of the policy-making phase that follows. The middle-term objective of this period, we believe, can be given both a name and antecedents: a new single act for a single Europe.

A restored momentum

The adoption of such a single act would depend on a dramatic surge of political acumen on the part of European leaders and on their commitment to demonstrate that postponing in the long run the idea of a constitution or constitutional charter target is not synonymous with paralysis. After the 21-22 June summit they would commit to launching a wide European debate on Europe's policies. In this context, the preparation of such a single act should be the main challenge for the 2009 elections of the European parliament.

Such an approach broadens the idea of a "mini-treaty" and anchors it where it should always have been: on a functionalist drive. The first single European act masterminded by Jacques Delors that came into force in 1987 overcame what was called then Eurosclerosis by setting out a clear programme of action, with a method, a calendar and a deadline. Crucially, institutional reform, at the time a radical extension of qualified majority voting, was accepted by Margaret Thatcher, precisely because it was seen as a means to achieve a highly desirable end: the completion of the single market by 1992.
Also in openDemocracy on the European Union in a decisive year:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life"
(15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth"
(21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schöpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday"
(23 March 2007)

Mats Engström, "Europe's green power"
(26 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe"
(30 May 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)
We can emulate this method today with a new single act whose goals are adapted to European reunification in the post-cold-war era and to new challenges, such as globalisation and demography. In our view, such a single act should put forth a coherent and forward-looking programme of action in three core areas:

  • completing (yet again) the single market that is after all Europe's proudest and longest-lasting achievement; this includes clarifying the status of public and private services
  • bringing together the disparate threads of the EU's core structuring policies - in climate change, energy security and pan-European infrastructures
  • delivering on Europe's role as a globally responsible actor, through a renewed statement of purpose and the development of practical instruments across relevant policy domains.

Ιn a new single act, these programmes of action would be accompanied by a package of new institutional tools. The institutional treaty expected soon will probably be on a minimum package that would include a stable European council presidency, reform of the commission, and the installation of a foreign minister or representative along with a diplomatic service. The treaty will also, it is to be hoped, contain the consensual democracy-enhancing provisions of the draft constitutional treaty, extension of co-decision and qualified majority voting among them.

The single act would build within and around this framework to lay out a substantive agenda for the post-2009 parliament and commission.

Either way, institutional reform and policy agenda cannot be divorced and the single Act approach would link them. This would in turn pave the way - perhaps in a decade - to revisit the constitutional story.

The approach we propose calls for modesty and realism. The new president of France has given up the idea of a renegotiation of the constitution in the short term followed by a new referendum. Britain and Poland should also switch from veto politics to consensus-building. On this basis, the passing of a single act for a single Europe would recreate the momentum Europe now so dearly needs - as did its predecessor, before the upheavals which changed the face of Europe forever.

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