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Is the EU Too Fragile for a Constitution?

Will the European Union survive ratification of its proposed constitution?

May 12, 2005

Will the European Union survive ratification of its proposed constitution?

The tightness of the French referendum debate has sparked all number of apocalyptic predictions by Europe's leaders about the future of their Union.

Rejection of the constitution by France — the country from which European integration was born — would, it is feared, mark the beginning of the end of Europe's grand experiment.

The EU would descend into chaos, as politicians traded blame and individual countries went their own ways.

Relations would fray, institutions would crumble — and all of the progress of the last half-century would wither quietly into history.

It should not be this way. A political system worthy of a constitution should not be so inherently fragile that the temporary inability to agree on its contents threatens the whole enterprise.

As the upcoming referendum in France and other countries sadly illustrates, however, the EU is still that fragile.

It does not help that the constitution itself is deeply flawed. Ideally, a constitution discusses little more than basic values and institutions.

Yet at several hundred pages, this document strives to legislate in virtually every conceivable area of public policy. One is reminded of the old university adage that to emphasize everything is to emphasize nothing.

The document also does nothing to make the EU more democratic and accessible to ordinary people.

By further obscuring the relationships among the EU's many institutions, and between those institutions and national governments, the constitution fails to clarify how the Union is intended to operate and how local autonomy will be preserved.

If anything, the document increases the accumulation of power by Brussels.

Finally, by proposing a common foreign and defense policy, the harmonization of some criminal law, and shared immigration and asylum rules, the constitution asks the member states to give up too much.

It thereby undermines a conceptual foundation of the EU — namely, the pragmatic integration of sovereign states, cooperating where it benefits them, acting alone where it does not.

Yet, the constitution is not the real problem. It is merely the prism through which that problem is refracted.

The real problem is that the EU is confronting a number of fundamental and extremely divisive issues.

The most important is a philosophical split over Europe's future. The EU is divided broadly into those who want greater social and economic liberalization, such as the British, Dutch and Scandinavians — and those clinging to a traditional welfare state, like the French, Germans and Belgians. That division has rarely felt deeper.

In addition, all of the member states are dealing with the natural disruption caused by the EU's expansion into central and eastern Europe a year ago.

They are also arguing over whether admitting Turkey to their ranks, with its considerable cultural differences, is worth further disruption. And they are doing so at a time when many of their economies are suffering from high unemployment, low job growth and emotional debates over immigration.

Compounding these problems is the fact that ordinary Europeans have little familiarity with, or investment in, the EU as a political entity.

As these seemingly intractable debates have shown, Europeans still think of themselves primarily, if not exclusively, as members of nation-states.

Beyond the gains from a common market and certain regulatory efficiencies, the argument that there are genuine "European" interests is unpersuasive. All of this indicates that Europe is simply not ready for a constitution.

After all, a constitution should reflect shared values and interests, and lay out a common vision of the future. It should describe institutions that have broad popular support, and it should carefully calibrate the distribution of power among them.

And it should be written not as a technical parliamentary document, but in plain language that ordinary people can understand.

European leaders past and present are directing their dire forecasts at those who would vote against the constitution.

They should really direct them into a mirror. It is their historic inability to cultivate a sense of European identity that threatens both the constitution and the Union as a whole. Now, it may be too late.

Integration has done wonderful things for Europe. It has helped make war in Western Europe unthinkable, enhanced the living standards of hundreds of millions of citizens — and enshrined into law a vast array of human rights.

Yet, it has been done in a way that has failed to win loyalty from its people.

It is now that such loyalty is needed most, and it is ironic that the constitution, for all its majestic ambition, may become the biggest casualty of its absence.