Of mice, men and the language of EU reform

Of mice, men and the language of EU reform

18 July 2007

by Hugo Brady

Beware the humourless, especially in politics. At a CER/Clifford Chance conference last week, Guiliano Amato, Italy’s interior minister, pronounced that the Reform Treaty was a return to familiar territory for the EU: an unreadable treaty. A few refused to get the joke, portraying Amato’s playful observation as an explosive revelation that the Reform Treaty is indeed the EU constitution encrypted. ("Loathsome smugness", seethes Open Europe’s blog).

How odd. The conference was clearly on the record and Amato's warmly ironic tone was anything but pompous. But Open Europe also missed the bigger point in Amato’s speech: his admission that we never had a real constitution to start with. Amato, a widely admired statesman and former prime minister, was vice-chair of the convention that first wrote the EU constitution in 2003. The convention, he said, had wrongly dressed up a set of fairly good ideas, designed to make the EU’s institutions, foreign and justice policies work better, as being something it was not: a grand constitution.

The governments stuck with the name ‘constitution’ in the hope, rather than the expectation, that it might grab the attention of citizens and make the EU more popular. But according to Amato, the document was always much more a ‘boy’ than a ‘girl’, referring to the French words ‘le traité’ (masculine) and ‘la constitution’ (feminine). This reflects the nature of the EU itself, which Amato christened a "hermaphrodite": not merely an inter-governmental organisation but far from being a state.

True, much of proposed Reform Treaty is to be taken from the wreck of the so-called constitution. But, aside from the name, other controversial aspects are being amended or dropped: there are about 20 significant changes in all. The new treaty will be completely stripped of any pretensions to be a US constitution-style founding charter. As the communications commissioner, Margot Wallström, who also addressed the conference, quipped: mice are genetically 90 per cent identical to human beings "but the remaining ten per cent makes all the difference".

Nonetheless language, legal and otherwise, matters in the European debate. Hence the outcry over Sarkozy’s deletion of a key reference to ‘undistorted competition’ from the new treaty or Commission president Barroso’s well-intentioned, but foolish, description of the EU as a new "non-imperial empire" (a misnomer in any case: a non-empire empire?). And now, when just about everyone else has finally accepted that the idea of a constitution for Europe is dead, British Eurosceptics cling to the term in a bid to pressure the government into holding a referendum.

Why? Sovereignty is hardly the issue. Sir Stephen Wall, another keynote speaker last Thursday, noted the British are blasé, in contrast with their European counterparts, on key issues of sovereignty like trade liberalisation and foreign ownership of industry. The thought of foreigners owning home-grown car industries makes continental politicians shiver; the British care little. Neither can it be a reaction to British politicians and diplomats having failed to defend national interests the negotiations on the treaty. Peter Altmaier, a minister in Angela Merkel's government, rather ruefully outlined to the conference how the UK had won the most from the three negotiations leading to this treaty: the convention, the 2004 inter-governmental conference on the constitution, and the recent June summit.

No, Eurosceptics here hope a referendum on Europe will be the beginning of the disengagement from the EU they long for. A referendum would be the perfect political arena to portray issues like the role of EU foreign policy or the primacy of EU law as an affront to British sovereignty and awake fears of what Hugh Gaitskill, a former Labour leader, famously called “the end of a thousand years of history”.

In the past, well meaning pro-Europeans and commentators have also called for a referendum in Britain on the EU, as a way of challenging the orthodoxies of the British European debate. This is wrong-headed. Yes, Gordon Brown should encourage passionate debate on Britain’s interests in Europe. But if he fails to stand firm against calls for a referendum, he risks opening a Pandora's box of obfuscation and media-fed nationalism, as well as handing a platform to fringe political forces from across the UK. (I exaggerate? Read Frederick Forsythe's "Pledge a referendum on Europe Mr Cameron", FT July 16th.) To paraphrase Gaitskill's wife, as she listened to the standing ovation elicited by his famous speech: a British referendum on Europe would make all the wrong people cheer.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.