Europe Charts Its Path
By David R. Sands
It’s not Philadelphia 1787, and Valery Giscard d’Estaing may never be mistaken for George Washington, but the European Union’s effort to write a constitution is bumping up against some of the same questions that bedeviled America’s Founding Fathers. The power to tax and wage war, big states versus little states, the need for a bill of rights, centralization versus local government, the separation of powers, accommodating future members, democracy and efficiency – all are on the table as the 15-nation European Union strives to draft the alliance’s first constitution.

Some argue that the grandly named “Convention on the Future of Europe” must succeed if the European Union’s creaky governing structure in Brussels is to avoid seizing up, a victim of its own inefficiency and lack of popular support.

Mr. Giscard, 76, the former president of France, is leading the assembly charged with producing a preliminary report this summer and a final blueprint by June 2003 for European governments to consider.

The convention, which follows a series of contentious EU government summits that have failed to produce a long-term road map, has been given a mandate to chart the future of the European Union after 2004, when the alliance prepares to welcome as many as 10 new members from central and southeastern Europe.

The heart of the effort will be the drive to draft a constitution to safeguard individual rights, protect the prerogatives of the member states and forge a more concrete connection between the Brussels bureaucracy and the typical Spaniard, Finn and Scotsman on the street.

Conservative political activist Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation predicted hard times ahead for the EU drafters, based on his own extensive experience advising constitution-drafters in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia after the end of the Cold War.

“Every place where I worked you had a shared culture and a shared basic approach to what government should be,” Mr. Weyrich said. “You don’t have anything like that with the European Union.

“Not only do you have so many different languages and government systems, but just the understanding of what freedom means is very different in the Scandinavian countries from what it is in France or Spain,” he added.

Ambassador Guenter Burghardt, head of the delegation of the European Commission to the United States, said the European Union plans to learn from the U.S. experience as it charts its future, noting that the American Constitution has continued to evolve in the centuries after the Philadelphia Framers concluded their work.

“Let’s be clear,” Mr. Burghardt said in a speech last month in Berlin, “we are not talking about an inappropriate comparison between the future ‘United States of Europe’ and the ‘United States of America.’ The European Union will not be the effigy or political clone of the USA – for obvious reasons.”

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller, whose country will hold the EU summit in December that will decide the answer to the enlargement question, noted, “The European Union has for long been an economic heavyweight, but politically, our punch is below our potential.

“Though the European project in many ways is fundamentally different from the birth of [the United States], I am sure your Founding Fathers would have been able to appreciate the difficulties involved,” Mr. Moller said.

But skeptics, echoing America’s early anti-federalists who denounced the U.S. Constitution, say the convention exercise will inevitably become a power grab by Brussels.

William Cash, a Conservative Party member of Britain’s House of Commons and the party’s lead spokesman on legal affairs, said, “There is a lack of connection between the people and the elites on a huge scale” as the EU constitution-writing process gears up.

Mr. Cash said comparisons to Philadelphia are unfair because, by his estimate, only five of the 105 delegates drafting the EU blueprint share the skeptics’ demand for a “more democratic, transparent Europe.”

“All the others are committed in advance to further EU integration. I emphatically say we are heading for a European superstate,” he warned at a recent conference on the European Union at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute.

Jeffrey Anderson, a political scientist at Brown University and director of studies at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said the convention would have the best chance of succeeding if it focused on a small, clear set of issues, including the rights of citizens in EU member-states and on a workable division of powers between Brussels and the individual governments.

“But if it does not succeed, it would be a bellwether for the incapacity of the EU as a whole” to deal with its problems, Mr. Anderson said. “If the problems are not addressed, I see real problems down the road.”

Clearly there are some for whom half-measures are not enough.

Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, proposed a sweeping expansion of the union’s powers in May, ceding to the central administration powers long reserved for nation-states.

Among Mr. Prodi’s recommendations: a direct EU tax to finance operations, a single EU foreign and immigration policy under the direct control of the commission and a greater commission role in setting economic policy for countries adopting the euro currency, including representing the European countries in such bodies as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

A top aide to Mr. Prodi denied the Italian was proposing a European “superstate,” but the Prodi blueprint sparked fears in many corners.

“It seems to be a case of aspirations running ahead of reality,” former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, a member of the convention’s 12-member steering committee, said of Mr. Prodi’s plan.

The constitutional debate pits Mr. Prodi’s European Commission, a quasi-executive rule-making body representing the European Union as an institution, against the Council of Ministers, a policy-making body that much more closely reflects the 15 member-states and their individual interests.

Complicating the mix is the European Parliament, which enjoys far less clout but is the one EU institution whose members are selected by voters in democratic elections.

America’s Founding Fathers faced deep divisions between large and small states. Mr. Giscard and his drafters face the same dynamic in Brussels.

Emotions still run high in Austria more than two years after Vienna’s 14 EU partners effectively blackballed the country after the formation of a new coalition government that included the anti-immigrant, rightist Freedom Party.

The sanctions, backed by center-left governments in such EU powerhouses as France and Germany, were lifted after less than a year, but Maria Rauch-Kallat, general secretary of Austria’s ruling center-right People’s Party, said her government is determined to prevent a repeat of the 2000 impasse.

“That was punishment without trial,” Ms. Rauch-Kallat said during a recent Washington visit. “Certainly in Austria there is not a strong feeling that more power should be going to Brussels at the expense of the regions.”

The debate has crystallized in arguments over a chief executive for the European Union, a kind of “super president” to beef up the office now held by Mr. Prodi.

Mr. Prodi shares agenda-setting powers within the European Union with a “rotating presidency” in which each EU member presides for a six-month term.

The half-year term, held by Denmark, is widely criticized as too short for any one country to be effective. And when the alliance expands to two dozen members or more, an individual EU country would hold the agenda-setting post only once every 12 years or more.

Many believe the big EU powers are determined to use the convention to end what the Swiss newspaper Le Temps described as “the dictatorship of the minnows.”

Although British public opinion remains highly skeptical of both the euro and the expanding power of Brussels, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is backing a plan to create a much more powerful European Council president, to serve for a term of up to five years. The plan has been attacked by several of the smaller states, which fear the office will be dominated by a representative of one of the larger nations.

France and Spain have supported the Blair plan.

The constitution-writers will have no shortage of proposals in their suggestion box.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has pushed for a European Union modeled on Germany’s own federal system, with many current EU functions, notably agriculture and development aid, transferred back to the member states.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, recently proposed a streamlined Council of Ministers, reducing the bureaucratic departments from 16 to 10, while increasing the term for the rotating presidency from six months to 2½ years.

Many of the proposals seek to address what has been called the European Union’s “democratic deficit,” the widespread sentiment that ordinary Europeans have little direct say in the decisions that come out of Brussels on everything from international trade policy and border security to the acceptable sugar content of chocolate.

Stephen Nix, now regional director for Eurasia at the Washington-based International Republican Institute, said that based on his own experience working with the drafters of the Ukrainian constitution, creating an EU judiciary could be critical even though the issue has received scant attention thus far.

“The EU already has legislative and executive functions,” he said, “but we learned that if you are putting together a permanent constitution you had better empower some institution to interpret it. You need some kind of supreme judicial body to referee how the various centers of power relate to one another.”

One final challenge for Mr. Giscard’s team is the rapidly shifting political winds in Europe.

Much of the drive for a powerful European Union has come from the center-left governments that held or shared power across the continent in the 1990s. But a string of conservative victories in such EU stalwarts as Italy, Spain and France has transformed the debate about the possibility of an EU superstate.

Britain’s Mr. Blair faces an electorate still deeply ambivalent about the euro, while conservative German opposition leader Edmund Stoiber, an EU skeptic, leads the center-left chancellor, Mr. Schroeder, in the polls ahead of the Sept. 22 election.

Pierre Moscovici, European affairs minister in the government of former French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and a delegate to the convention, said earlier this year that the EU reform effort “must go beyond a strict adherence to a nation and seek what is in the interest of Europe as a whole. We need to move towards a United States of Europe.”

In the recent French parliamentary elections, not only did the Socialists lose the majority they have enjoyed the past five years, but Mr. Moscovici lost his individual seat in Montbeliard in eastern France.

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