It is high time that the Euro-generation flexed its political muscles

Article published on June 23, 2003
community published
Article published on June 23, 2003

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

The Convention has been a flop. But failure has less to do with political issues and more to do with differences between the mindsets of the older and the younger generations.

The Convention was billed as being disrespectful, provocative and generally uncalled for. And yet the compromise finally reached by the Presidium of the Convention on the future of Europe has all the ingredients to lead us to cry foul. They promised us a Constitution. They talked about reshaping the European project, about a historic opportunity, about a (decadent) Brussels being depicted as a (new) Philadelphia (in 1787 - which led to the creation of the USA), all set to do a similar job for the EU by giving birth to a federation. Brussels was meant to be like Philadelphia, Giscard [dEstaing] like George Washington.

An IGC-ised Convention

But if it is a United States of Europe that you want, then you had better settle down for a while and make yourself at home in one of the many empty corridors of the European institutions. That way you can slip into a daydream about one of the many creaking visions of the European project alongside Jean Monnet and Altiero Spinelli, Robert Schuman and Paul-Henri Spaak. At least youll be in good company.

So why has the European Convention, which was supposed to show a new method of decision-making and to redesign the architecture of the institutions, failed on both counts? As for the method, they told us at the beginning of the Convention that we were light years away from all those summits behind closed doors, from Maastricht to Nice via Amsterdam, those big gatherings of the European project. Summits like these known as IGCs (intergovernmental conferences) in Brussels jargon are regarded as too remote, too lacking in transparency and, as was evident in Nice, often short on efficiency too.

We should bear in mind that it was only too clear right from the outset that the Conventions conclusions would be renegotiated at an IGC and that has been like a sword of Damocles hanging over the hemicycles deliberations. But despite the fact that it has been going for 15 months, the Convention has left it until the final few weeks to produce a workable compromise. So it has been IGC-ised, or if you like, IGiscard-ised!

Sacrosanct national interests come out on top

So what went wrong? Was it simply that Giscards Presidium needed to bypass the plenary and the working groups to produce its draft à la IGC. Have they ended up undermining the spirit of a Convention that was meant to be open and diverse? For quite a few days now (and nights, holidays permitting) it has been clear to everyone that, in Condoleeza Rices words, time had now run out, that things were getting serious and that, like it or not, national interests were coming to the fore. But what is this compromise that has been so laboriously reached? The creation of a European Minister of Foreign Affairs is a good thing even if there is a lack of democratic control. But, apart from that, the real reforms, such as the number of Commissioners and the weighting of votes in the Council, have been postponed until 2009. That leaves a revised and corrected version of the now obsolete Nice Treaty still in place. But are we not talking about the failure of the constitutional project, a project which has become hostage to national interests and which has put off the big decisions? What will happen in 2009? Do we really believe that a 25-member Commission will be manageable?

OK, the dreaded major shake-up in the institutions will not be going ahead. Next years large-scale enlargement will only serve to shift much of the power from the Commission to the European Council, supported at times by a legislative Council. This will be led by a chairman appointed for two and a half years. So the only centralised power in the Union, the Commission (which is not democratic either), will play second fiddle to the realpolitik of national interests. But have no fear because Europe will not be ungovernable. It will just become less democratic.

If only Giscard had participated in the Erasmus scheme

So how do we explain this paralysis? Is it the Conventions fault? The answer lies in the fact that the national interests dominate the thinking of the two generations running todays Europe the Giscards and the 60-year-olds of today, the Prodis, Chiracs, Blairs and Schröders. All of them are very dignified statesmen but they are out of touch with what todays Europe is all about. They havent experienced the excitement of living in Europe for a year or more, they havent taken part in the Erasmus scheme.

There is a huge contradiction between the Europe divided over Iraq and the Europeans united against the illegal attack on Baghdad. There is a huge divide between the wheeling and dealing of the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] and the dynamic life of someone doing a Masters in Washington, Prague and Berlin. And even the Franco-German axis domiciled in the Quai dOrsay and the Werderscher Markt is a Franco-German pairing of young men and women who met through the Erasmus scheme.

There is a huge chasm between the Europe of this Convention and the Europe of the Euro-generation. The Euro-generation have lived on bread and foreign languages, on pizza and Internet, on Nutella crêpes and euros. They have grown used to the single currency and spending it on a paella in Valencia or a good bitter in Dublin.

But this is a humiliated and frustrated generation on the move. How can we watch hundreds and thousands of young people live and share dreams with other Europeans every year, try their luck with foreigners, and at the same time really believe that democracy cannot be carried over at the European level? We can have passionate debates about the Champions League with a Spaniard, chat about politics with a Dane, have fun and maybe choose a lifelong companion from another country. So why cant I vote together with other Europeans to have a European Parliament with legislative power? Why cant I read the same newspapers in different languages? Why cant I participate in the same society?

The Conventions problem is not a political one. Its a problem of personnel. The average age of the members of the Convention is 55, according to Franck Biancheri from the think tank Europe 2020. The problem lies in what these people have experienced and how they see the future. Could you see Chirac campaigning electorally in England? Or Berlusconi in France? With democracy at a European level, these people would lose power. These are generations that dont want to put their interests in jeopardy. They simply dont know how to because they are afraid. But there is an alternative. It is a sociological one for the time being, a social phenomenon. It is the Euro-generation that our national leaders are doing everything to alienate. They insist on spending 40% of the community budget on tomatoes, potatoes and cows via the Common Agricultural Policy and on freezing the Erasmus budget at a princely 0.XX% of the budget. But how many young people would decide to participate in Erasmus if they could, i.e. if there was a serious policy to promote the scheme? Many many more than the million students who have taken part in the last fifteen years. It would be a revolution, at least in terms of their thinking. A sociological alternative. But its struggling to come up with a political alternative simply because they do not have a clear idea of how revolutionary it could be. You can see for yourself, on June 20, in Thessaloniki, when Giscard submits a draft Constitution which fits this Old continent so well. What can you say? It fits the Old continent like a glove.