There is life beyond a European constitution

There is life beyond a European constitution

Opinion piece (Financial Times)
23 May 2005

A No vote in France's referendum on the European Union constitutional treaty could open up a period of confusion, uncertainty and recrimination. That would make it hard for the EU to deal with difficult issues such as the negotiation of a new budget settlement, further enlargement and the Lisbon agenda of economic reform, not to mention foreign policy challenges, such as relations with Iran and Russia. A No from the Netherlands, which holds a referendum three days after France, could have similar consequences.

If the French or the Dutch vote No, the European Council (EU heads of government and the Commission president) should meet immediately. Its message should be that a referendum defeat is not a catastrophe, that methods will be found for improving the way the EU institutions work, and that the Union will proceed with business as usual. An upbeat tone would help to reassure the business community that the EU and its rules will not unravel, and the Union's neighbours that it will not become too introverted.

The council should discard the suggestion of Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg prime minister, that the other members should continue with ratification. Mr Juncker apparently believes that if everyone else adopts the treaty the French may change their mind in a second referendum. But, unless the result was extremely close, many EU governments would assume that a French No had killed the treaty.

The council should respect the wishes of French (or Dutch) voters by pronouncing the treaty dead. But it should also announce a three-pronged strategy to keep the Union focused and forward-looking. First, the EU would remain committed to current priorities: agreeing on a budget settlement, starting membership talks with Turkey and Croatia, developing closer ties with near neighbours, pressing ahead with economic reform (including the services directive) and concluding the Doha trade round.

Second, the governments would implement some of the treaty's foreign policy provisions. The existing institutions are illsuited to servicing the EU's embryonic common foreign policy. Fortunately, sections of the treaty can be put into effect under the legal base of the existing treaties. The EU could set up the "external action service", a kind of EU diplomatic corps. It could create the post of EU foreign minister by merging the jobs of high representative (currently Javier Solana) and external relations commissioner - as long as Spain appointed Mr Solana as its commissioner and he took the external relations portfolio. Mr Solana could then chair foreign ministers' meetings instead of the minister of the country holding the rotating presidency. But most of the treaty cannot be implemented without ratification.

Third, the governments would announce a pause before returning to the question of amending the existing EU treaties. After, say, a year reflecting on the treaties' strengths and weaknesses, they would gather for a "mini inter-governmental conference" that would decide on just a handful of amendments. This would give the governments a chance to save key provisions of the constitutional treaty, such as the "double majority" voting rules (simpler and fairer than the current rules), the creation of the post of EU president or the cut in the number of commissioners. They should avoid picking provisions that would add to the EU's powers, such as the extension of majority voting into new areas.

Such amendments would form a new treaty of perhaps a couple of pages. Most EU governments would wish to avoid further referendums and would ratify this by parliamentary vote. Eurosceptics would demand referendums, complaining that arrogant politicians were again building the EU behind the backs of the people. The governments should face down such demands, pointing out that the constitutional treaty and the overwhelming majority of its provisions had been abandoned. They should explain that the new mini-treaty was about technical adjustments, to make the EU work better, rather than transfers of new powers to the EU.

Mr Juncker and others committed to a much more integrated Europe would like this strategy little more than the eurosceptics. They would be loath to lose the constitutional treaty on which they had worked so hard. They should perhaps seek solace in the provisions of the existing treaties that allow groups of member states to co-operate more closely in certain policy areas. But they should accept that the EU as a whole cannot take major steps towards a more united Europe unless it can convince electorates to support them.