It has been a full year since the rejection of the EU constitution by France (29th May) and the Netherlands (1st June) – and still the European “political elites” (their phrase, not mine) can seemingly agree on only one thing: the failure of the constitution to connect with the people was the fault of, erm… the European political elites. They’re not wrong.
But of course, while it’s all very well to have a post-match analysis that goes on for a year, and while these constant discussions doubtless have their uses, the problem persists that as long as the EU tries to find a one size fits all solution, nothing will ever be solved through the organisation’s many committees. Nothing that actually does the job, at any rate.
There is plenty of room under the EU umbrella to incorporate both Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (recently the author of a book somewhat anachronistically entitled “The United States of Europe”) and the more nervous likes of Britain, Denmark – even Norway and Switzerland. Hell, done right, partial membership could easily be extended to the likes of Ukraine, Turkey and even some north African and central asian states – a juicy carrot promising more goodies if they behave themselves.
It is the less stable countries on the EU’s eastern and southern periphery that are currently posing the most problems for the continent as a whole, be it through criminal gangs or immigration, so it is those states on which attention needs to be focussed. Get them on board, and a lot of the EU’s problems could be solved.
To that extent, Verhofstadt is right in arguing that “The Union must continue to grow. This is the only guarantee for lasting peace and stability in Europe”, even if he goes on to make a huge logical leap in claiming that political union is the only way forward.
Of course, what Verhofstadt fails to acknowledge is that in order to grow, the EU must have somewhere suitable to expand. Currently there is nowhere. Some of the new member states who joined two years ago had not really reached the right levels of economic performance to join the club – hell, arguably France and Italy haven’t got the right levels of economic performance to join the club…
Yet expansion was allowed in 2004 at least in part to save face – a sign that the great European project is still on track and positively craved for by those countries not yet lucky enough to be members. It was as much a message to existing member states as it was an extension of friendship and hope to the new ones. With future expansions, this would become ever more the case – unless Switzerland, Norway and Iceland can be persuaded to join, the EU is fresh out of economically and socially-sound neighbours.
And so, with expansion at its current limits and with no obvious way forward, a year after the constitution was rejected it still remains the best hope of the self-same elites who approved it. The one major problem it would have provided is the one thing thaty all political leaders can agree is needed – political leadership. With 25 member states, an EU President and Foreign Minister could have provided focus in a way that the Commission simply cannot. With the constitution’s rejection, however, that is not – for the time being – to be.
Unfortunately, as the last year has shown, with not a single major European leader capable of providing guidance to their fellows, the political elites who were responsible for the constitution may be able to churn out reams and reams of text discussing the problems, but can rarely boil down the solutions to bit-sized chunks – because they can’t come up with any solutions. Many argued prior to the constitution’s rejection that what was needed was not hundreds of pages of legal jargon, but a short, snappy statement of principles – a “We, the people…”, a “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Currently the trans-continental committee is incapable of agreeing on even something as basic as what count as human rights.
Pinning all their hopes on a constitution that none of them were truly happy with, they still haven’t reached the obvious conclusion: it is time – if only temporarily – to reject the one size fits all model. The very existence of the Eurozone proves that it can be done – and add to that the complex Venn diagram of European relations that brings in the Schengen Agreement, Council of Europe, EFTA and the like, you have the beginnings of a model that everyone could be happy with. A core Europe of Eurozone states who can happily push forward with political and economic integration whenever they please, with various decreasing intensities of membership on the periphery.
The logic of this to me seems obvious. They’ve given the one size fits all approach a fair attempt, but it was already under pressure with 15 members all having to reach unanimous agreement, let along 25 – hence the introduction of “qualified majority voting” in a vain attempt to get SOMETHING done by forcing reluctant member states to accept the will of a majority.
But while EU-sceptics from all over the EU frequently complain that their contries are being pushed down a route they don’t want to take, rarely do they use the other, more subtle argument: the more sceptical countries are holding the EU back. This is an analogy I’m sure I’ve used before, but it remains true – as long as the EU is forced to go at the speed of the slowest child in the class, the brighter kids are not only going to get increasingly frustrated, but they’re never going to reach their full potential.