Friday, May 20, 2005

It's Not Just Britain

Opinion polls are suggesting that the Dutch and the French are set to vote "no" in their referendums on the European Constitution. In some ways, even as a committed pro-European, I am pleased to hear this. Part of this stems from the fact that I have some misgivings over the content of the constitution (for example, plans to have an EU foreign minister - presumably in a role above and beyond that of the current Commissioner for External Affairs - are ridiculous, adding little to what we have and causing almighty confusion about precise delineations of power). But on the other hand, it is because of the political fall-out that would ensue from a French or Dutch "no", that I think it may have the potential to be a good thing.

If the British were the sole country to reject the constitution, we'd just be seen as the archetypal trouble-makers. We'd probably be rejected by the rest of Europe, who would press on ahead without us. This would undoubtedly be dreadful for our national interest - especially as far as trading regulations go, we would be subject to EU decisions without having the slightest say in what they were. Even the most hardened Eurosceptic would not, if responsible, adopt a line beyond William Hague's "In Europe, but not run by Europe".

For two of the founder members to reject the constitution, on the other hand, would force a fundamental rethinking of the whole shebang. And if the debate on the constitution has shown anything, it has shown that there is no common vision for Europe. A debate on A Fistful Of Euros a few weeks ago asked where the Madisons and Hamiltons of modern day Europe were. There aren't any, because the EU excites so few passions across the continent. Why? Because no-one really knows what we are supporting. Even when it is asserted, it is usually more indicative of the national standpoint of the speaker, than through any pan-European theory of the EU.

As things stand, we can have whatever sort of EU we want. Chirac can proclaim the supremacy of the social model; Blair can herald the free market; Poland and Hungary can argue for the benefits it will allow them in their continuing adjustment to the global market. And all of them can be correct, to a greater or lesser extent, because the EU functions effectively on backroom deals. It is based on the give-and-take of negotiations, of nation states dealing with one another to decide how much they are willing to give up in some areas to further their national interest in another.

Of course, the common criticism by the Eurosceptics in Britain is precisely this unaccountable nature of negotiations. They recoil in horror when you suggest giving more power to the European Parliament, but that is the logical extension of their argument, because all they can talk about otherwise is vague notions of "national sovereignty" (which in Britain are even harder to define due to our lack of a written constitution, but that is another matter entirely). Where they have merit, of course, is when they attack the EU because no-one really knows what it is. There isn't a coherent defence that pro-Europeans up and down the continent can come back to.

If the EU is to be a valid enterprise, it needs that. It needs to have a theory and a structure behind it that ordinary people can identify with. It is telling that the countries to have ratified the constitution so far, with the exception of Spain, have been countries ratifying it through their Parliament. My guess would be that in Germany at least, were it not for the Euromania of the political class, the passage of the EU constitution would be much more dicey. In many ways, to see the constitution passed would be a great danger to Europe. It would allow us to continue in our muddle without really knowing what Europe was for. That's a debate we need to have, and one that we should initiate as soon as possible.