The European Press and the European Constitution

Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who led the committee in charge of drafting a constitution for the European Union (Photo: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP-Getty Images).

It is perhaps no surprise that former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who led the committee in charge of drafting a constitution for the European Union, struggled to settle on one image in summing up his work. The draft was, Giscard d'Estaing said, “an edifice, a construction, an equilibrium, a balance,” and even “a synthesis.” To some extent, his blueprint did manage to be all things to all Europeans—at least for the duration of last week’s summit in Thessaloniki. The question now is whether it can remain so.

In general terms, the draft constitution aims to define the division of power between the E.U. and the member states. Key measures include cutting through overlapping “spheres of competence,” granting more influence to the European Parliament, and uniting E.U. members in a common defense and security policy. It also provides for the creation of an E.U. president. If approved at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in October, the constitution will take effect in May 2004.

The summit’s outcome aside, the summit itself struck many European commentators as no small feat. On June 23 Madrid’s liberal El País noted in an editorial: “That 28 countries with such disparate languages and judicial cultures should have produced this result is a historic event in itself.”

Christian Wernicke, writing in Munich’s centrist Süddeutsche Zeitung remarked upon the new post-Iraq harmony on foreign policy, saying that Britain’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac, and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder stood together to call for Iran to reveal its nuclear-weapons program. The paper urged E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana to make speedy progress on clarifying the parameters of a new E.U. defense and security policy.

But the harmony evidently did not run deep. In a June 20 analysis, Frankfurt’s liberal Frankfurter Rundschau pinpointed the fundamental difference in attitudes toward the blueprint. “In Thessaloniki everything revolved around the question of how the draft should be treated: as a mere starting point, or as a very good basis for a final document.”

Writing in Frankfurt’s conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the same day, Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger said the document would no doubt be amended, but that this was in keeping with the spirit of the E.U. “This is no tragedy; it merely reflects the character of European unification and its political expression, the European Union. The key characteristic of this unification process is its evolutionary character, that it is never completed and probably never will be. That is why the draft...will be reviewed again and again for necessary adaptations.” Spain, along with Austria and Poland, fear losing influence in the proposed shake-up, and so are particularly insistent that amendments be made. Writing in El País on June 20, special E.U. envoy Sandro Pozzi said Spain would be the first in line but not the only country to demand changes to the draft.

“The degree of acceptance (of the draft constitution) varies from the almost blanket support of France and Germany to Spanish disgust for the new formula for voting in the council,” he wrote, adding: “No one subscribes to the project 100 percent. That is why there’s a risk that the country will want to modify the chapter that least pleases him at the IGC conference, and that eventually the consensus achieved by the 105 members of the convention will collapse.”

Thomas Ferenczi, in Paris’ liberal Le Monde (June 20), also noted that complex questions remain regarding the reform of key E.U. institutions and the issue of an E.U. president, but he welcomed the process begun by the convention as a key step toward absorbing 10 new members in 2004. “It was…essential that…new rules be established so the participation [of new members] would not seriously disturb the working of the system.”

Meanwhile, London’s conservative Sunday Times, in its June 22 editorial, reflected not just British skepticism but even a certain tardiness in recognizing the issues at hand. “Britain, a country without a written constitution, is now tied to a process that will lead to an E.U. Constitution.” It added: “The time has come to ask serious questions about the future of the European Union.”

In an editorial on June 20, Berlin’s Die Tageszeitung in Berlin called for Germany to put the constitution to its people in a referendum, arguing: “A European Constitution requires the direct consent of the peoples of Europe, otherwise it will end up as merely a constitution of states—not of their citizens.”

But in former Eastern Bloc countries, doubt and disagreement were swept aside in the sheer delight at being included in the club. “The Summit of European Unity,” cheered the conservative Cotidianul in Bucharest (June 23). “Although the summit was unable to clarify the existing differences among member states on the future of the E.U. Constitution, the Romanian government is already celebrating the summit’s decision to consider future E.U. enlargements as an irreversible process and to treat Romania’s accession on the same principles used in the last wave of E.U. accession.”

Elsewhere, there were regrets about those areas of E.U. policy that proved sticking points. Le Monde's June 23 editorial said: “Europe must welcome immigrants not out of charity but because it needs them to make up for its demographic deficiencies.” The paper noted that the summit had missed another chance to create a common immigration policy.

This was also picked up by Jörg Wojahan, a commentator for Vienna’s liberal Der Standard. In a June 20 piece, Wojahan regretted that an E.U. immigration policy remained merely theoretical in the draft, which said only that “would be useful” if more powers on asylum and security policy go to the European Union.

Indeed, Frankenberger’s article for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung summed up the general mood in the European press: “The constitution will not make the E.U. more transparent, simpler, or more democratic. It also won’t create a strong European leadership. The conflict between the integrationists, who would like to turn the E.U. into a federal state, and intergovernmentalists, who refuse to give up national sovereignty, has not been settled.”

He added: “The constitutional convention was not superfluous because it has started to cut through the European thicket of responsibilities and legal regulations. And yet it remains no more than an interim move.”