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Europe’s Constitution – the Uncertain Road Ahead

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Negotiations over Europe’s constitution will begin again next March: a compromise may yet be reached. The damage to Europe's credibility, however, is already done.

It’s over. For 2 years the European Constitution has incited discussion, compromise, hope and hysteria, and this weekend’s Brussels meeting was scheduled to hammer out the final details. But on Saturday night it all came to an end, as medium and heavyweight states failed to disentangle themselves from a struggle over voting arrangements.

While the ink on Sunday morning’s newspapers was still drying, the recriminations remained heated. The German papers blamed the Poles; the Poles blamed the French. The French blamed the Spaniards, who blamed the French and Germans, who blamed not only the Spanish and the Poles but also the Italians - for not organising the negotiations properly – and the British, for not putting pressure on the Poles. In a bout of irony, the Italians blamed everybody, including themselves. And finally the British, who were never too enthusiastic about the constitution anyway, just said nothing and politely strolled away.

Like true bargainers, all sides came to the table loudly announcing that they would walk out if the deal wasn’t good enough, and in the end, walk out they did. For Spain and Poland, the calculation was simple: refusal to accept the constitution meant that they would get the voting system they wanted. For the newly integrationist France and Germany, the stakes were more complicated. Already dissatisfied with the multiple compromises worked into the draft constitution simply to satisfy the British, they had become increasingly attracted to a different kind of ‘plan B’ – a two-speed Europe, with an integrationist ‘hard core’ consisting of France, Germany and the Benelux countries and complainers like Poland or Britain getting left on the outer track. A number of experiences in the preceding year had planted the idea at the back of their minds: the refusal of ‘New Europe’ to back their opposition to the Iraq war, their joint breach of the Growth and Stability Pact, and the formation of a European Defense Force in which they were the de facto key players. Like last month’s proposal for a ‘Franco-German Union’ it was a bluff, with Chirac playing the bad cop, belligerently declaring that it ‘would be a motor’ to ‘set an example,’ allowing ‘Europe to go faster, better,’ and Schröder playing the good cop, cautiously warning that ‘we don't have to wish for [a two-speed Europe] and we don't wish for it, but that will be the logical consequence of a definitive failure, which of course we don't want’.

But such bluffs can become threats, and threats can become actions. Negotiations over Europe’s constitution will begin again next March, but the greatest danger is not simply that Spain and Poland remain intransigent over their voting rights, but that, even if an eventual compromise is attainable, the Union’s founders lose hope for achieving the Europe they want: one that is both broad and deep. Perceiving a choice to be made, they may warm to the concept of ‘core Europe’, consigning marginal nations to a permanent outsiders’ complex.

Yet for the moment, even greater damage has been done to Europe’s public image. Even assuming that an agreement is met at a future summit next year, the Constitution will still need popular approval in several countries in order to come into effect. The past few months have served to undermine the consensus carefully created by the Convention; a poll last week indicated that less than half of EU citizens viewed it positively. Where intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas envisioned Europeans having a sense of identification and ownership of the Constitution, the protracted negotiations that citizens have been witness to have served to dilute any sense of common 'Europeanness', instead bringing to the fore how many nation states still treat Europe as a means of pursuing their own national interest - and little else.