Federalism by any other name

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

The draft constitution for Europe produced by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has infuriated Eurosceptics in the UK and elsewhere for being too federal; those favouring a federal Europe think it does not go far enough.

Surely, a pragmatist might think, this must mean Giscard, treading a middle way between the demands of extreme europhiles and europhobes, has got it about right? Not so, it would seem. There are still many unresolved issues to be agreed by the Convention on the Future of Europe and, with less than three weeks to go before he has to present the views of the Convention to the European Council meeting Salonika, Giscard has failed to persuade many of the conventioneers that his final draft constitution takes their concerns into consideration.

Representatives of the small countries are unhappy with Giscard’s decision to retain the idea of a fixed-term President of the European Council. The proposal has the merit that it might allow for the emergence of a more effective Union than the current system of the rotating Presidency permits. However, the small states, worried by the spectre of a directoire, believe that it would weaken their position in the Union. They consider that Giscard has taken too much notice of the large Member States, who favour the idea of a fixed-term President, and that his proposals are insufficiently federal.

A few such as the UK Government’s Representative, Peter Hain, seem to be happy with progress: the term ‘federal’ was removed from the draft thanks to formal amendments proposed by members of the Convention, not to mention Tony Blair’s dinner with Giscard. Yet, despite the fears of the small states that the proposals are not sufficiently federal and even if the word ‘federal’ has been removed from the draft, the draft is essentially federalist: the document is, after all, intended to be a constitution, it divides competences between the Union and the Member States, provides for a Court of Justice, whose law will be supreme, and it advocates an elected President. Moreover, Giscard was very quick to assert that ‘federal’ and ‘Community’ are synonymous. So, the word has gone but not the concept; another blow for British sovereignty or so the UK media were keen to tell us. And yet, if one looks closely at the draft, much of what is being proposed is already in place.

True, the treaties are not called a Constitution, but they essentially perform a similar function. There is already a European Court of Justice and EU law is already supreme: the only change is that politicians and people alike finally seem to have realised this. The concept of an elected President may seem avant garde but in practice what is being proposed goes little further than the current situation in which the European Council nominates its choice for Commission President and MEPs give their assent or otherwise. There is scope for the European Parliament to use the revised proposals to maximum effect by refusing to accept any candidate whose political hue did not fit with the majority in the Parliament but a quantum change in the way the Commission and its President are chosen is not inevitable. Since many of the ideas outlined in the draft constitution are already in place, it is not surprising that the draft has received far less coverage in other European states, where citizens and politicians are rather more comfortable with European integration. What has received coverage, however, is the sense among many members of the Convention that the draft does not go far enough towards meeting their demands.

In order to maximise the impact of the Convention’s work, Giscard needs to get the vast majority of the 105 members to support his proposals. To date he has not seemed to go about this in the most effective way; he is certainly not renowned for listening to their views. Having now decided to speak to all the members individually he may finally have realised that the Convention needs to be a collaborative venture. There is a fair degree of consensus around a broad package of measures which are essentially federal however they are forma lly described; where the difficulties remain are in the institutional arrangements. If he is to succeed in producing a draft acceptable to the majority, Giscard will have to show he can reconcile the concerns of the small states with those of the large to which he so far seems to have given preference. If he does so the results of the Convention may well serve as a blueprint for a constitution, if he fails the IGC may well be a protracted affair.

Dr Julie Smith is Head of the European Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.

Read more analyses on the

Federal Trust website.