21st Nov 2017


Commission should not be over zealous

A story that did the rounds some years ago concerned a young woman whose car had stalled at a road junction. In vain, she tried to restart the engine while the line of vehicles grew longer behind her. When one particularly impatient and choleric man started blowing his horn and shouting abuse, the woman suggested that if he would only have the kindness to attempt to start her car, she would sit in his and manage the horn blowing operations. Thus could they best make progress satisfactory to both parties.

I was reminded of this story by the recent ill-tempered exchanges between the President of the European Commission and the President of France on the eve of this week's European Council. The latter finds himself with a stalled car, or rather a stalled referendum campaign, or rather still a referendum campaign that is now rolling backwards. For after a progressively steady decline in support for the 'yes' camp, the two latest polls have suggested that French voters will actually reject the European Constitution on 29th May.

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The reasons for this haemorrhage of support - only a few weeks ago many were expecting a 60-40 vote in favour - have been well rehearsed and need not detain us: the Constitution is seen as being overly Anglo-Saxon in tone; the French have fears about accommodating Turkey and other potential candidates within the Union and latterly the Commission's proposal to resurrect the plan to liberalise the services market is seen as a threat to social protection. Of these, only the first is strictly a constitutional matter, as the horn-blowing Mr Barroso was quick to point out.

"If there's total confusion in the minds of the French public between the Constitution, Turkey and the Services Directive, it is not the Commission's fault," he thundered. "It's up to French politicians to explain what's involved in this vote, to clear up the misunderstanding. The Commission…….can't do the job of French politicians. It's for them to take responsibility."

Job swap?

I hesitate to advise the President of France but I should have been tempted to suggest he called upon Mr Barroso to take over the French Presidency while he, M. Chirac, took over the Presidency of the Commission. At least until the Constitution was safely ratified. Mr Barroso could then put his great reforming energies into tackling the undoubted problems of the French economy while M. Chirac could ease his path by focussing the Commission on external relations, environmental initiatives and cultural matters, anything in fact without a significant economic or agricultural dimension to become entangled in the various referendum campaigns to which we, and many of our fellow citizens, will shortly be subject.

Mr Barroso's line in all this is that the Commission cannot allow its work programme to be hamstrung for the next year or so because various countries are having constitutional referenda. One may legitimately ask 'why not?' Followed by the question: which is the more important in the grand European scheme of things, the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty, or a year's delay on financial, economic and agricultural reform? It is not voters who are beating on the Commission's door demanding action to reform the European economy, after all. Indeed, the reverse is true, they hold national prime ministers accountable for jobs and wages, even when they derive from manifestly European initiatives like the Single Market. But this week's European Council inverted the focus. The European accent was on the economy; ratification of the Constitution taken almost as a 'fait accompli.'

Can of worms

For it is the Constitution that is absolutely vital to Europe's well-being. Should French voters throw it out then we shall have a reverse of Pandora's box: hope will escape but we shall be left with everything else, including a significant can of constitutional worms. Difficulties of every type will remain but our best hope of tackling them in an ordered and cohesive way will have been lost. The Europe we know could simply collapse and a very different, looser, multi-speed and inward looking creature emerge.

Whether the concessions on the controversial plan to liberalise the European services market and a more vigorous pro-Constitution campaign by M. Chirac will be enough to save the day only the next two months will tell. At any rate he seemed pleased enough with the result and for now he is off the hook. The deal was brokered by Mr Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who holds the current six month presidency of the European Council. Mr Juncker has a track record of getting governments off hooks having successfully brokered Britain's opt-out from the Single Currency during the Maastricht negotiations.

Treading softly

Still, with his press conference remarks about the obsolescence of the British £3 billion budget rebate, Mr Chirac has shown that he is Mr Barroso's equal in the horn-blowing stakes, although, to be fair, he went no further than Mr Barroso himself in a weekend BBC interview. Both forget that Britain also has a constitutional referendum to win, assuming, that is, that France votes 'yes.' Then it will be the turn of the increasingly sceptical Dutch on 1 June, followed by the Czechs, Danes, Poles and British (to name only the more problematic) who will follow.

We all have our own sensitivities, so maybe the Commission needs to tread softly. Indeed, if it brought forward not a single new economic initiative for the next two years it is unlikely that any voter would complain, or even notice. As my eighteenth-century chum Talleyrand used to say, 'trop de zèle!' (Too much zeal!) One thing at a time. Many ventures are lost through heedlessness and lack of attention. The Constitution is too valuable to be one of them.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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