It’s now or never for the European Constitution

Article published on Dec. 12, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 12, 2003

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

The final and decisive Summit on the Constitution begins today in Brussels. There can be no more excuses: the 25 Member States must reach a decision. The political balance of the new European Union is at stake.

On the eve of the Summit between Heads of State and Government being held in Brussels today and tomorrow which could bring to a close the work of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), the Italian Government, through its Foreign Minister, requested an end to the procrastination. It issued Europe with an ultimatum: ‘we need a decision that measures up to the challenge before us. If we do not get this, we will end up with a ‘two-speed’ Europe’. In short, discussion about the new Treaty will be concluded here and now under the Italian Presidency. Anything less is simply inconceivable. Once more, the adrenaline-fuelled wait will be filled with trepidation.

A successful period

But what has Italian diplomacy achieved in the IGC? Whereas in July issues of dissent between Member States over the Treaty numbered 92, on the eve of the Summit these had been substantially reduced to just one: the infamous question of Council votes. As for the rest, the text proposed by the Italian Presidency as a basis for agreement shows some evidence of back peddling with respect to the Convention’s text. On the subject of tax, in the Presidency’s proposal the possibility of the Council voting under the qualified majority system is limited; ‘elements at the foundation of Member States’ fiscal regimes’ will not be affected by Council decisions. The same is true of social security: the creation of a social security system for workers who move from one country to another (an increasingly common phenomenon), foreseen by the Convention, has also been also limited. ‘It must not affect the budgets of Member States’ social security systems in any noticeable way’. Similar limitations have also been introduced with regard to judicial co-operation in criminal matters, which draws your attention to the Italian Government’s particular susceptibility in this matter. But, most importantly, the Italian Presidency has introduced the right of appeal before the European Council if a Member State feels that ‘the founding principals of its own juridical system’ are under threat. Progress has been made in the decisive sector of European defence where the important additional agreement, achieved in Naples at the end of November by Foreign Affairs Ministers, should hold good apart from a few revisions.

Backed up against a wall

Spurred on by France and Germany’s resolute resolve, Italy has decided to take on in full the role of one of the founding nations and to break its alliance with Aznar, thus pushing Spain and Poland up against a wall figuratively speaking with regards to voting modality in the Council. The ‘double majority’ system (50% of Member States and 60% of the population) that was approved by the Convention will be proposed again. Compensation for the two countries should come in the form of their number of eventual Commissioners. However, at the moment nothing is set in stone.

In the final hours before the Summit, the pressure on the two countries grew with the President of the Republic, Ciampi, at the forefront. Never in the history of European construction has a Summit between Heads of State and Government assumed such a tone of finality. They know how much is at stake. Will the Spanish leader, Aznar, and his Polish counter-part be willing to take the historic responsibility for throwing a spanner in the works in the name of narrow national interests?

The fact that we are facing this kind of crossroads demonstrates that the bureaucratic system that solves everything without solving anything (see Nizza) is no longer enough. The type of choice demanded of Europe’s leaders now is of a different nature. It is entirely political. And Europe is currently in vital need of political choice. We will know if it has been enough in two days time at the very latest. Let’s hope it’s good news…