Yes to the EU, yes to the Constitution

Versac, from the French blog Publius, sent me a list of questions concerning my views on the EU and the EU Constitution. The idea is to interview a number of non-French bloggers in this way and publish the result on Publius, as part of the discussion in France – which is, by the way, (compared to the Netherlands for instance) of excellent quality. Below are my replies in English. The translation in French (or excerpts thereof, as I could not keep myself, once again, from being exceedingly lengthy…) will appear on Publius in the days to come.

who are you ? How would you characterize your attitude concerning the European Union and the process of European integration : Euroenthusiast, Eurosceptic, Europhobe? Why?

I have worked in one of the EU institutions in Brussels for several years and now work as a civil servant in the Netherlands, still on EU affairs. As for my attitude toward the EU and European integration, I would first of all call myself a democrat – that is the main reason why I am in favour of further integration.

In the slightly longer version:

I prefer an EU-like structure over the alternative of intergovernmental cooperation, because:

  • There will be extensive cooperation anyway. Countries in Europe are too small to be self-sufficient. They have to cooperate, as many problems facing them transcend national borders. This cooperation will always involve much more than cross-border trade alone, because the wish for a “level playing field” in trade automatically brings with it calls for common rules on other issues like state aid or environmental and social requirements. Such calls will also be stronger, the more mutual trade and other contacts are intensive (as is the case in Europe). There will always be countries which are not prepared to enter an agreement on one issue unless it also contains provisions on other issues. This is why the EU has evolved into something that is much more than a mere common market.
  • Ordinary foreign policy-making is not accountable enough. Foreign policy is normally conducted through foreign ministers, heads of state, embassies, treaties and the like. The means to exert democratic control and influence on this process are sufficient as long as cooperation remains limited to the odd trade agreement, but not when it gets as extensive as it is in Europe. Also, foreign policy instruments allow only for the exchange of views between governments and those represented in government. This leaves political minorities without representation and influence on the supranational level, even when they have substantial support across borders.
  • A supranational structure is more likely to produce optimum results. This is because it can act as a (more or less) honest broker and help breaking deadlocks, but also because it allows for the introduction of (qualified) majority voting. National vetoes (which are typical in foreign policy) allow the “extremists” in the policy range to block decision-making until they get their way on an issue that may even be unrelated to the one they are blocking. The result in the long run is either no common policies at all, or a set of common policies that caters to everyone’s hobby horses but leaves the real problems untouched – and everyone worse off.

The EU, however imperfect it may be, and almost independent of the form it takes, provides a structure for making “foreign” policy that is much more transparent and democratic than intergovernmental cooperation could ever be. It is probably more effective as well, as a greater variety of views, opinions and interests can be heard and accounted for than through ordinary channels.

I should add here that I think the concept of “national sovereignty” is a nineteenth-century myth that has seriously outlived itself (at least as a meaningful principle in international cooperation), which helps explaining why I do not get too upset when the EU takes over a few things from our nation states. Sovereignty, to me, means freedom to act, and that capability was lost long ago by all states in Europe – if they ever had it. Not even the United States is fully sovereign in the sense that it can act completely on its own, as the aftermath of the war in Iraq has shown.

The real question is, however, if a state must have sovereignty at all. I do not think it must. My viewpoint is that individuals, not states, must have sovereignty. Government and other societal structures exist in order to help individuals to live full and accomplishing lives, i.e. to help them acquire sovereignty. Governments do not have an *inherent* right to exist or to have sovereignty – theirs only derives from and is subservient to that of the individual.

We do share a great many opinions with our countrymen (more than we are usually aware of until we start living in a different country for a while) because we grew up in the same cultural space as they did, so it does make sense to organise some of our influence on European affairs on the basis of national representation – but certainly not all of it. Like the problems we face, our viewpoints and interests too tend to cross national borders: Chemical companies all over the EU have the same concerns about the EU’s proposed REACH Directive, as do those who think the REACH Directive does not go far enough in protecting human health. And both proponents and opponents of the liberalisation of railways, water companies and energy networks can be found in all countries of the EU. Therefore it is a good thing that there is an EU with a European Parliament and a European Commission, because these institutions provide us, citizens, with alternative ways to organise ourselves and to make our views known, parallel to the old intergovernmental route embodied by the Council. In this way the EU gives individuals more influence on European policy-making, i.e. more sovereignty, than pure intergovernmentalism would do.

Eventually, I would still like to see the Council evolve into an elected EU senate, and maybe we will need an legal structure that is a little more flexible and patchworky than the current one-size-fits-all approach. But so far the development is going pretty much in the right direction.

Are you in favor or against the European constitution? Why ? What are, in your oprinion, the main progresses and/or setbacks in the treaty ?

I am in favour, because compared to the current situation (which, for all we know, is what we keep if the Constitution falls) there is progress from nearly every viewpoint (except the one that wants to abolish the EU altogether). That is to say – I do see how the text could be improved in a way that corresponds better to my own ideals, and I also see how it could be improved to make it more palatable to French voters. But I do not see how this could be done without at the same time making it less acceptable to voters in other countries.

That is, after all, the whole point of EU cooperation: it is a cooperation of 25 different countries with 25 different political traditions, and all 25 of them have to agree with the Constitution text unanimously. You cannot make the text more socialist without upsetting e.g. British, Dutch and Eastern-European voters so much that they vote ‘no’, you cannot make it more free-marketist without making the French vote ‘no’, you cannot make it more federalist without making the Poles, Baltics, Czechs and Scandinavians vote ‘no’, you cannot abolish the Common Agricultural Policy without making the French, Greeks and Italians vote ‘no’, and you cannot make it more intergovernmental without making the Germans and Belgians vote ‘no’.

The Constitution is a compromise between all those contradictory views. And, I must say, a very good one at that – the Convention has done a much, much better job than I ever expected. So if you want an EU composed of more than only your own country, if you are in favour of more democracy, if you want to have more influence on the world stage… and if you truly believe in solidarity ( i.e. also with people living in other countries than your own) – you have to vote ‘yes’ to the Constitution.

I do realise that “you have to vote in favour of the Constitution, because any change would only make it worse” is a “negative” argument. Fortunately, I see positive arguments as well, the most important one by far being that our elected representatives get considerably more influence on what goes on in Europe. And best of all, this goes for our elected representatives in both the European Parliament (which is good for the federalists) and the national parliaments (which is good for the intergovernmentalists):

  • The European Parliament now gets influence over *all* EU laws and framework laws, including those governing agriculture (40% of the EU budget) and Justice and Home Affairs, and it will be able to make amendments to the entire EU budget instead of only half of it. This will bring the dealings on these issues much more to the open and make them transparent and more accountable. By doing so, it will also become more difficult for the “extremist” countries in any debate to hijack the decision-making process: In the future, when they block the decision-making in order to force the others into taking a decision that is unreasonably tilted in favour of their interests, they are more likely to be challenged to defend themselves in public. This kind of hijacking is the main reason why we got the British rebate and the excrescences of the Common Agricultural Policy, and the only way to get rid of them is more transparency and more EU-wide democratic safeguards.
  • National parliaments get the early warning mechamism on subsidiarity, which means that if 30% of the national parliaments object to a Commission proposal on the grounds of subsidiarity within six weeks after it was published, the Commission has to reconsider its proposal. Now, legally, “reconsidering” does not seem to mean very much, so at first I was rather sceptical about this myself. However, I have changed my opinion when I discovered how seriously this subsidiarity check is taken by all national parliaments in the EU, without any exception. Each of them has set up new procedures and committees in order to be able to deliver a reasoned opinion on each Commission proposal within six weeks, and cooperation between the national parliaments has been stepped up, amongst others by setting up a common intranet-like structure for exchanging information.
    The political importance of these changes can hardly be overstated, and have nothing to do with how the Commission deals with national parliaments’ objections. This is because the main democratic deficit of the EU is actually not situated in Brussels, but in the national capitals, where (to this day) national MPs fail contemptuously to take their responsibilities in the European decision-making process. The main reason for this is a vicious circle (little public interest -> low media attention -> little political relevance -> little public interest etc. I mentioned this before in my blog) which this increased political interest in a relevant (i.e. early) stage of EU decision-making will be of great help breaking.

Additionally, an argument to not vote against the Constitution, is that the referendum is not about any of the arguments of the opponents: not about Turkey’s accession to the EU (which is a separate decision on which President Chirac has promised to hold a referendum as well), not about economic policy (which is the same in the Treaty of Nice), not about the fact that EU law supersedes national law (which is already the case) etcetera.

Drawbacks of the Constitution? That depends on the perspective you take. From the perspective of what is achievable, considering the variety of views in the 25 Member States and the fact that each and every one of them has to ratify the Constitution, I would say there are no drawbacks at all: it is the best achievable compromise. So, should there be renegotiation following a no-vote, I would be pessimistic about the outcome of that process.

From the perspective of what I, personally, would like the Constitution to look like, I would say it is not yet “federalist” enough. Specifically, and to begin with:

  • The Council is not democratic enough. This remains true even when, thanks to the Constitution, the Council will convene in public when legislation is debated. The route of democratic scrutiny, through national parliaments controlling their own ministers, is too cumbersome, too indirect and/or (when mandates are used) too rigid. More importantly, the real debate does not take place in Council meetings anyway, but even more out of sight in Council working groups mostly consisting of national civil servants and experts. Also, as Council decisions are taken by the ministers responsible for that specific policy area, Council proceedings tend to be too sectoral, with too little overview of the impact of decisions on other policy areas. Another problem is the “block votes” under QMV, by which each country casts 5, 7, 10 etc. equal votes. This has huge distorting effects as the diversity of opinions within each country is not accounted for. Therefore, what we need is a Council consisting of directly elected national “senators” for whom sitting in the Council is a full-time job. Each Member State would have as many senators as it has votes under QMV.
  • Foreign and defence policy must be federalised. Clinging to that cherished national sovereignty is useless and ridiculous, as individual Member States are too small to have any influence on the world stage (remember Blair vs. Bush on Iraq?) and/or are likely to fall victim to the ‘divide and rule’ of the real world powers (remember “old and new Europe”?). If Europe is ever to have a foreign policy that is worthy of the name and that is a real counterweight to such powers as the US, China and Russia, it has to be able to take decisions. This will never be the case unless QMV replaces the national vetoes in this area. I think France, especially, should begin to realise that giving up the national veto is the inevitable price to pay for a foreign policy that matters.
  • National vetoes are evil and should be abolished. See above under foreign policy and under EP influence on EU laws. I think vetoes should be abolished in all policy areas. Minority and national interests should be protected by mechanisms that provide for more balance with the general interest, like the one introduced for penal law in article III-270 sub 2 of the EU Constitution.
    The same principle applies to the mechamism governing future changes to the Constitution, which should be more similar to the one used in e.g. Switzerland (requiring a majority of the population and a majority of the Member States to vote in favour, preferably through a popular vote).

How is the EU / the European constitution perceived in your country ? On which issues is the national debate focusing ?

As you may know, the Netherlands is becoming increasingly EU-skeptic, although I suspect this is mainly on the basis of a general anti-establishment trend that became visible under Fortuyn. There is a very strong sentiment that the Netherlands is paying too much to the EU, and it is seen as unfair that it has by far the highest contribution per head of the population, whereas other countries that are perceived as equally rich or even richer pay less. The perception that EU money is wasted on needless things like the European Parliament’s extra seat in Strasbourg (which Dutch voters think should be Brussels) or on “fraud” (EU money unaccounted for because Member State governments neglect scrutiny of the 80% of EU expenses spent by their own administrations).

Liberalisation of services as such is not so strongly contested, but there is a general feeling that the Netherlands is losing out because it is playing by the rules, for instance by opening up its market whereas other countries (in particular France with its protectionist tendencies) are not. The fact that EDF has access to the Dutch and other European energy markets while France is still keeping its own market closed got wide, negative, coverage. There was also wide resentment when the Council suspended the Stability and Growth Pact instead of applying it to the French and German excessive deficits. This was seen as an example of how rules in the EU apply only for smaller countries like the Netherlands, whereas the larger ones are let off the hook.

People in the Netherlands had a lot of confidence in the guilder, and have always been suspicious of the fact that southern European countries with weak public finances (like Italy and Greece) became members of the eurozone as well. The euro is also blamed for high inflation in the Netherlands in the years following its introduction, a feeling that was exacerbated recently by statements of the Dutch National Bank director, who said that the guilder was “undervalued” preceding the establishment of its final exchange rate against the euro (He clarified later that he meant the guilder was undervalued against the German Mark, not against the euro, but the damage had already been done. What he should have said, of course, was that the Mark was overvalued.)

Another important factor in the debate is that there has never been a national referendum in the Netherlands since 1798. This works in two ways:

  • This is the first time ever voters can give their opinion on the development of the European Union. Many reason that by voting ‘no’ to the Constitution, they vote ‘no’ to the EU’s lack of transparency and to what is perceived as a tendency of large Member States to impose their will. They expect that a ‘no’ would lead to renegotiation and a better Constitution. What is worrying is that, where the political ‘no’ camp consists of “extremists” like the rightwing populist MP Geert Wilders and the leftwing populist SP party, this group counts many politically correct, pro-EU opinion leaders among its members.
  • There is very little experience with how a referendum campaign should be conducted. NGOs and other organisations, like workers’ unions, tend not to campaign for specific parties during general elections. Political culture in the Netherlands is, after all, largely based on consensus and dialogue, and it is seen as important that unions maintain a meaningful dialogue with a government of any political colour. Organisations therefore are reticent to enter the referendum debate as well, even though this is a completely different kind of decision which has nothing to do with party politics, and everything with taking a stance on a particular political issue (which is, after all, the very reason for their existence). So you get the farmers’ union, which is in favour of the Constitution, saying they will not advice to their members how to vote “as a matter of principle”. And the main workers’ union, which considers the socio-economic paragraphs of the Constitution as a reason to vote in favour, is unwilling to campaign for a ‘yes’ “because the Constitution is not about socio-economic policy alone”. The problem with all this pathetic amateurism is that most of these organisations are in favour of the Constitution…

As an (I assume you’re english, but, are you ?) , how do you see France’s role in the European construction ?

I think France is a force for the good when it comes to moving the EU debate in the direction of a stronger European role in the world, and as a counterweight for unbridled free-marketism, American style. I think France is a force for evil when it comes to trying to circumvent or bend the rules for its own (perceived) interests, for instance when it comes to opening up its market for competition from countries that have done so already. Economic debate in France, in particular, to me has a strong 1970s flavour: people wanting all the wrong things (protectionism, state support for companies, inflexible labour markets) for all the right reasons (quality of life, social and environmental considerations).

So, in short, I am glad to have France in the EU as a partner and an ally, but I would not want France to lead it. Sorry :-)

If the French were to vote “no” to the European constitution on May 29th, what do you think would happen next? Could a new constitution more favorable to French interests and demands be adopted?

First of all, I think the ratification process would continue as planned. The UK government of course would like to see it stopped then so it could avoid its own referendum, but I do not think it will get its way. After a French ‘no’, the Dutch are even more likely to vote ‘no’ as well, as people who were not yet sure what to do would then feel encouraged to “follow their heart” instead of their brain.

What happens next depends on the margin by which French voters voted ‘no’ and on the outcomes in other countries. If it would be only France (and the UK, which would probably get a “special treatment” anyway if it votes ‘no’), I suspect there will first be a second attempt to hold a referendum (the Irish recipe), possibly with an additional protocol or statement on social policy or services of general interest (the Danish recipe).

If that does not work out, one could consider splitting the Constitution in a constitutional part (parts I, II and IV of the current text) and a policy-oriented part (part III). This would be a good thing in principle, and, as the main problem of French voters does not seem to be with the constitutional part, I would expect this to get a majority rather easily. Other countries that voted ‘yes’ already could reason that they have no need for a new referendum as parts I, II and IV were part of the text they already adopted.

However, as I said before, I do not see how we could adapt part III in a way that would make it better in the eyes of French voters without making it worse in the eyes of voters in other countries. I see two possibilities:

  • Keep the old treaties for part III. This should be possible technically and it would not make a big difference either as part III is for 90% what was already in the old treaties. Voters would of course not get the other 10% of part III which includes the revolutionary introduction of democratic scrutiny for agricultural policy, but that would be their punishment for being foolish. Come to think of it, this is probably how this whole process of treaty revision should have been approached in the first place: It was a tactical mistake of Giscard d’Estaing to call it a Constitution. I am not sure though if it is still possible to do this, as it would most certainly be interpreted as a way to wriggle out of the problem. Which is correct, although, rationally, it is only a way to get of rid of a discussion (on socio-economic policy) that has nothing to do with the changes introduced by the Constitution in the first place.
  • Renegotiate part III and get a mess. The other way out would be to try to renegotiate part III and try to find a new compromise all 25 countries can agree with. That is, I expect, impossible unless the compromise is substantially the same as the current one. So the only way out would be to find a range of new compromises applying to different parts of the EU, analogously to the construction with the eurozone and Schengen. This is messy, considerably less transparent than the current situation (which, I recall, is considered “too complex”), and it is unclear how you would arrange it institutionally. On the other hand, it could prove to be the only way ahead.

5 Responses to “Yes to the EU, yes to the Constitution”

  1. Mark Giebels Says:

    Great piece of work and very clarifying! Thanks. I can only say that I agree 100% with your points of view. And how often does that happen :-)

    Just one negative implicit conclusion. The way you describe it, it seems like the French can only win by voting No, assuming that they reason mainly based on national interests. Since the worst that can happen to them is a second referendum, in which they can still vote Yes. And this worst case scenario doesn’t even have any disadvantages for them; it will not even delay the process, since there’s another year to go before e.g. the Brits and/or Czechs will have held their referenda. More likely than this worst case (for them) scenario is that the treaty will be renegotiated (either by changing the text or by adding documents) in their favor. So why would they vote Yes?

    Would you vote Yes if you where an influential country in the EU and you knew that there is, say, a 50% chance that you will manage to include your preferred Senate in the treaty, provided that you’re voting No?

    Since this is a referendum on a treaty, a Yes doesn’t mean that the constitution succeeds. It’s more like, we step aside and let the remaining others decide. A little simplified I know, but still. A No means, we’ll wait until the others have decided and then react accordingly. From a negotiation point of view, the second is a lot smarter. Ergo, the choice for national referenda on this treaty was a wrong one.

    Who loves direct democracy, but only if it is effective.

  2. eulogist Says:

    Gee, thanks :)

    Interesting point, on voting ‘no’ as a negotiation tactic. I could argue that, as far as political institutions are concerned, they probably realise that there is very little willingness to make additional concessions to France among the other 24 countries – especially as many (the Brits, for instance) feel they have made more concessions to France already than they are able to justify to their voters. Which is why I believe any “concession” would be unsubstantial – which also, from a national interest point of view, makes it not worth the hassle.

    Politicians, on the other hand (as opposed to state institutions), could be motivated by other things (like popularity ratings) that would make it worth the hassle fighting for an symbolic concession. This is especially true as, sadly, the 2007 presidential elections seem to have been a more important factor in the political debate than the future of Europe (or France, for that matter). However, in order to obtain a concession on the Constitution you have to be in government already, so this path is only open to politicians of the right. Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s main rival candidate for the presidential elections and a likely new Prime Minister, however, is an economic liberal and reformist, so I do not see what kind of concession he would be able to boost his popularity with (and he does not seem to need to either, surprisingly enough). But Dominique de Villepin, another likely Prime Minister, is more of a lefty, so it could work for him (although he has campaigned more vigorously for a ‘yes’ than Sarkozy, so where does that leave him?).

    This is of course not how most ordinary voters will reason. I think many of them, especially on the left, will not even vote ‘no’ with “the national interest” in mind, but because they genuinely believe that their view of a “more social” Europe would make it a better place for everyone. And, because at the same time, voting ‘no’ allows them to give a bloody nose to the ruling party, which, in their eyes, is not pursuing such policies. According to opinion polls, 52% of voters apparently believe that the Constitution can be renegotiated – this corresponds nicely with the percentage of people intending to vote ‘no’. This also despite the fact that 57% believes the Constitution will make Europe stronger in the world and 58% that it will improve the functioning of the EU institutions. So that seems to confirm your idea.

    A final word on referenda: Indeed, this whole thing shows that it would have been a good idea to hold all those national referenda on the same day, or at least within, say, the same week. The problem was, of course, that 25 countries have 25 different sets of constitutional rules which you cannot overrule from a supranational level. And the other problem was that not having a referendum was politically impossible in most of the countries holding one, including those doing so on a “voluntary” basis, like the Netherlands. They simply would not have got away with it. And as far as the Netherlands are concerned, I must say that whatever the outcome, the referendum has led to a wide debate on the EU which, even if it was not very sophisticated, was long overdue.

    This is a well-known problem with federal constitutions when they have to be adopted for the first time, which always requires unanimity of the constituent parts: they either come about in an undemocratic way (through parliaments and governments voting on a national basis, but without involving the population directly), or a violent one (civil war in the USA and Switzerland). Of course, one of the first things abolished by such constitutions is the unanimity requirement for future revisions. Sadly, the EU Constitution does not do so…

  3. Mark Giebels Says:

    I do agree that a wide debate on the EU in the Netherlands was long overdue. And that’s definitely a very positive aspect of this referendum. But there are too many negative aspects which makes it a bad choice in the end. To add one more, it might actually destroy the little sympathy that exists in Holland for forms of direct democracy. Particularly because all the mainstream political parties support the constitution and most of them don’t really like direct democracy. So, it seems very likely to me that a huge propaganda apparatus will be put in place after a No vote to blame all the mess (which will most likely happen) on the ‘means’ referendum, just to save the constitution in a second (or even third) vote. The message will be that it is better to have politicians decide about matters of public interest, than the people themselves. And you know what, that message will sadly enough probably resonate pretty well in the Netherlands…

    The results of a first experiment often turn out to be crucial for the future success of a research project. I believe this will also be the case with this referendum. So that’s another reason to hope for a Yes vote in the Netherlands…


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