Is the glass half full or half empty?

Article published on June 26, 2003
community published
Article published on June 26, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Convention might not have been the great leap forward that many people were hoping for, but rather a small step for a Europe advancing at a snail's pace.

Only time will tell whether the result of the Convention can be considered a success or a failure. What seems clear, however, is that the European Convention is not like the one signed in Philadelphia, and that Giscard d'Estaing is no George Washington, nor is it any less evident that the history of Europe is not the same as that of the United States of America; the proverbial glass may not seem full, but - you have to admit - it is not empty either.

The Convention has failed to live up its task since the beginning. It was set up to respond to a series of pressing questions, or at least that was the prevailing belief, and ended up awarding itself the task of writing a constitution for the European Union - and, of course, a formula for one thing does not necessarily fit the pattern of another - not to mention the lack of women and young people represented in the Convention. For want of a clearly defined work structure, the early months of the Convention were used for nothing more than deciding upon procedural issues, something that does not prove effective in attracting the interest of civil society. In spite of all this, the Convention has signaled a move away from the model of changing the treaties via Intergovernmental Conferences. The wider European public began to get organised with the result that the Convention was able to welcome an audience made up of Civil Society representatives between 10th and 25th June. In addition, the European Youth Convention took place between 9th and 12th July 2002. Even if the Convention was not able to make the most of these two important points of contact, it was able to listen to the opinions and ideas of a large number of organisations and youth representatives.

There are a whole series of central questions which remain unresolved and which cannot but impede any attempt to move forward, such as the fact that a house built for 6 will not accommodate 25 without undertaking a series of substantial repairs. The current institutional model is unsustainable, yet contrary to the route followed by the Convention - negotiating percentages and representation - the problem is much more fundamental: the role of the institutions themselves on paper does not match the role they currently play. The public will always be reluctant to have more of Europe without first ensuring that the institutions become more democratic and closer to the people: it seems senseless that European democracies both new and old are currently falling into step with institutions which persistently fail to reflect something as basic as the separation of powers and where there is a council which remains totally beyond the democratic reach of its citizens. The sad thing is that the Conventions is attempting to hand over more power to the Council, this being the result of an ill-judged political vision shared by the majority of European governments. Once again, they have missed an opportunity to discuss the reforms which were an essential part of Spinelli's original plans. A house which only patches up its repairs is bound to end up susceptible to leaks.

From euphoria to disappointment...

For many people the results of the Convention have been disappointing, mainly because it was hoped that the Convention might play a more "idealistic" role in discussions which we have always known would wind up unpicked or reduced to shreds in the Intergovernmental Conference. The working groups had come a long way even with respect to the majority of the proposals coming from organised civil society. But let's say that the harvest came in before it was expected, right at the very moment when the working groups were due to incorporate their conclusions into the draft Constitution.

The participation of high-ranking officials from various national governments in the Convention lent it both a greater importance whilst at the same time signaling that the majority of States wanted to tie up and hold the reins from the start before the horse broke loose. It is quite possible that the conservative nature of the Convention proposal will lead the Intergovernmental Conference to treat the agreements as valid and not introduce many changes, although this will all depend on the extent of the final consensus.

In all this the most europhile of civic groups find themselves up against an impasse. The signs are that the Constitution will be put to a referendum in the various EU states, but if the final document falls too far short of the hopes which were invested in it - which will certainly be the case if the IGC foreshortens still further the small gains made - how then will the europhile organisations ask us to vote? Will they call for a yes, a no or an abstention? Such is the great moral dilemma which will be debated in many organisations and collectives in the coming months.

Neither winning nor losing: moving forward.

This all arises from the ambiguous nature of the process of building Europe. The Convention has represented a new clash between the federalist and intergovernmental models, from which adherents to the latter appear to have emerged as winners, yet in which the federalists have managed to move a step forward in Europe's tentative advance. Since the very creation of the European Communities the final objective has always seemed the construction of a block federal union, yet national interests still represent a barrier to this. The attitude of many national politicians as well as some of the media have not helped to stop this trend since headlines with terms such as 'win' or 'lose' are called upon frequently as attractive alternatives.

Nice, sad spectacle as it was, followed this tradition in that all the respective governments went back to their countries talking of victory and the "quota of power gained". This is a huge mistake. See the EU in terms of power quotas and we will all be losers in the end. Thieves may steal from the farmer's flock but if they kill the whole herd they will feast today and starve tomorrow.

The resulting document probably will not be the one most of European civil society was hoping for, but it s rejection would mean a certain setback for Europe. We need to be pleased with the progress we have made and keep working to overcome the barriers that remain. The glass is more full than it was yesterday, and less than it will be tomorrow.