Leaders in the European Parliament, backed by leaders of traditionally federalist member states such as Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, say a strong move towards a 'United States of Europe', enshrined in a constitution, is the only thing that can save the EU. But the French and Dutch voters said No and then blocked the process. Across the seas, Anglo-American Eurosceptics cry: "I told you so."
Yet there is no crisis of substantive policymaking in Europe. There is only a crisis of Europe's self-image - a crisis that could easily have been avoided. The constitution is not the solution. It is the problem. The sooner it is behind us, the better.
Three lessons can be drawn from the recent debacle.
First, the constitution's failure was inevitable. The draft constitution was, above all else, a public relations strategy designed to attract the attention of common Europeans, to stimulate their involvement in democratic debate over the future of Europe - and thus to convince them to fall in love with the EU. Yet political participation does not generally enhance legitimacy and certainly not with EU issues, most of which are simply not important enough to inspire voters. In recent referenda, European publics displayed neither interest in nor knowledge of the constitution itself, or even of EU policies more generally. They simply blamed the Union for their frustration with the things they really care about: national policies toward globalisation, immigration and social spending.
Second, the EU's tried-and-true de facto constitution, the much-amended Treaty of Rome, is performing very well. Over the past decade, the EU implemented a single market, a single currency, and more effective foreign and internal security policy, while enlarging from 15 to 25 member states. Recently, the budget has been settled, a services directive has passed and now the US is moving toward a more 'European' policy on Iran. In no country is there serious opposition to EU membership. Solid majorities favour instead a series of incremental reforms in areas from energy to terrorism, such as those in the constitution.
Third, there is no democratic deficit in Europe. Joint oversight by democratically-elected national governments and directly-elected European parliamentarians, combined with a system of 'checks and balances' that would make James Madison proud, are enough to ensure responsive decision-making. No wonder polls show that Europeans trust EU political institutions as much, or more than, their own.
The way forward is clear. What is needed is more pragmatic problem-solving addressed at immediate issues like terrorism, foreign policy co-ordination and over-regulation. Modest treaty reforms should be implemented in a piecemeal practical and quiet way - the polar opposite of the public relations strategy underlying the failed constitution. No one will come out onto the streets of Paris or Amsterdam to oppose a re-organisation of the EU foreign policy bureaucracy or a shift in voting weights - unless, of course, you call it a new constitution. The EU's secret weapon is that its policies are so boring.
Politicians know all this, but they are in a difficult bind. They know the EU can only advance incrementally. They know the constitution is dead in its current (and probably any) form. Yet the small and vocal minority that feels most strongly about the European issue, especially inside the 'Brussels beltway', considers this sort of pragmatism to be heresy - a betrayal of the federalist dream.
When Commission President José Manuel Barroso recently called for an "Elvis policy" - "less conversation and more action" - he was attacked viciously by European parliamentarians, who accused him of murdering the constitution by picking out its best bits.
National politicians, too savvy to get caught this way, are instead waffling rhetorically. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende says that Europe needs a constitution, but not one ratified by referenda. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the EU needs treaty change and a vague "constitutional future". Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik suggests: "We will know by 2009 at the latest what to do next." Tarja Halonen, the president of Finland, is a bit more honest, rejecting the term "constitution" outright in favour of the traditional "basic treaty".
What we are seeing is the last gasp of the traditional 1950s-era European rhetoric. The EU no longer needs to proclaim the ideal of "ever closer union" in order to justify its existence. Slowly it is being replaced by the more self-confident rhetoric, as befits a mature political institution older and more successful than most nation-states in the world today.