From TIME Europe, by J.F.O. MCALLISTER
Closer Union Or Superstate?
"After years of wrangling, E.U. leaders agree on a new constitution. Euro-skeptics say it grabs too much power. Federalists say it's too watered down. A cool look at a hot topic
MIXED RESULT: Chirac wanted more integration
All of Europe was riveted by the drama of the high-level gathering — leading figures jockeying to advance their nations' causes while television beamed live broadcasts back home to audiences of millions. The advances and feints, subtle maneuvers and frontal attacks were obsessively chronicled in the newspapers. Too bad the European Union's Presidents and Prime Ministers weren't playing football at Euro 2004. Their gathering in Brussels late last week to agree on a new constitution spurred much less interest than the athletes who were going for glory in Portugal.
That's the E.U.'s conundrum. Why does this complex, ambitious multinational enterprise, which is meant to embody and guide Europe's common destiny, leave so many people so cold that only 45% bothered to vote in the European Parliament elections earlier this month — with many of them voting for parties that want to dismantle the Union itself? After a historic enlargement designed to heal the wounds of the cold war, why was voter turnout lowest in the East and Central European countries that just joined? And finally, how can Brussels manage to win the affection — or even the attention — of the people it's supposed to serve?
This E.U. summit, unlike most, really did deliver a result worthy of Europe's attention. The leaders agreed to a constitutional
People don't like these E.U. structures. They are too far away, not transparent and undermining national democracy
— NILS LUNDGREN, Euro-skeptic Swedish M.E.P.
treaty they hope will make the E.U. more efficient (now that it has 25 members instead of the original six) and more democratic (by giving the European Parliament — the only directly elected E.U. body — a stronger legislative voice). There will be a new E.U. President who will serve a renewable 21/2 year term, and an E.U. Foreign Minister, who will advocate commonly agreed E.U. foreign policies. And there will be a new system of "qualified majority voting" on issues like the environment, transportation and agriculture: if 55% of members, making up at least 15 states and representing 65% of the E.U. population, agree, the measure passes.
But those moves toward a closer and more powerful union had Euro-skeptics howling — not just in Britain, the ancestral home of the skeptics, but also in places like Denmark and Poland, where some are suspicious that an E.U. speaking with a single voice will drown theirs out. Does this constitution, as the Euro-skeptics claim, push the E.U. far down the path to a single superstate?
The straight answer is no. Though countries like France, Germany and Belgium want the E.U. to integrate more, other countries like Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Poland do not — they feel the heat of the Euro-skeptics behind them and want to preserve national sovereignty without turning their backs on the constitution. British Prime Minister Tony Blair managed to win on the "red line" issues crucial to the U.K.'s sense of self. Under the new constitution, E.U. member states will still retain a national veto in foreign policy, taxation and social affairs. (That means France and Germany, to cite a hypothetical example, couldn't demand a uniform rate of income tax over Britain's or Poland's wishes.) Once a general foreign policy initiative is decided unanimously, however, details of how to implement it are subject to qualified majority vote, so there may yet be room for mischief making. But with 25 states inside the tent, it will be harder than ever for any one or two countries to run the show.
In fact, this summit proved how far from unity the E.U. remains. Leaders couldn't agree on a new European Commission President to replace Romano Prodi, whose term ends in October. Blair and the heads of at least six other countries shot down the candidacy of their Belgian counterpart, Guy Verhofstadt, an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq and an ardent European federalist. They may still break this logjam in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, there is something in this constitution for both camps. The federalists got clearer rules and roles for the Brussels institutions, but there's also a new provision allowing national parliaments to send E.U. legislation back to Brussels for review.
Despite the ambiguous outcome, the politicians naturally enough declared victory. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who as holder of the E.U. presidency was tasked with forging the deal, proclaimed: "This is a great achievement for Europe and a great achievement for all Europeans." We'll find out soon enough how great an achievement Europeans think the 300-page document is, since as many as nine states could hold a referendum on it, including Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and Britain. If any one of them votes it down, it technically fails as a treaty. In other words, the "ever-closer union" to which the E.U.'s founders aspired is once again rubbing up against the public's mix of apathy, doubt and outright hostility — and the heat from that friction could make the new constitution go up in flames.
The European Parliament elections a few days before the summit provided the first fires. With turnout across the E.U. its lowest ever — and in the new member states averaging an appalling 26% — Euro-skeptics and nationalists won about 15% of seats overall. One of Sweden's new Euro-skeptic M.E.P.s, Nils Lundgren, calls his victory "a clear sign of dislike and frustration. People don't like these E.U. structures. They are too far away, not transparent and undermining democracy by moving too much of the decision making process from the national parliaments to the E.U."