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EU: Britain Calls For Written Constitution

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Convention on the Future of Europe is working to define the European Union's powers and institutional arrangements ahead of the planned expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. In the latest development, Britain is calling for the convention to draw up a written constitution for the EU -- a major change of emphasis for the Euroskeptic British. What are the motives for this move, which will directly affect the incoming Easterners?

Prague, 27 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Britain, which could well be described as one of the least enthusiastic members of the European Union, appears to be undergoing a change of heart. That is, if a speech given today in Scotland by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is taken at face value.

In a speech to Scottish business leaders, Straw declared the government in London to be in favor of a written constitution for the European Union.

Straw spoke of the need for a constitution that takes into account the people and communities of Europe, not its political elites. And he said such a constitution should contain a "simple set of principles" and thereby help reconnect Europe with its citizens.

The proconstitution line is a major change of emphasis for Britain, where most people are hostile to the notion of centralizing power in Brussels. This is the first time the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has advocated a document setting out EU powers.

Straw's speech is causing dismay in the ranks of the main opposition Conservative party. For the Tories, as they are called, anything that resembles tighter European integration is undesirable. In an interview with RFE/RL, the Tories' shadow minister for foreign affairs on European questions, Richard Spring, said: "In a much more diverse European Union, where we are going to have 25 or 27 member countries [after expansion], what we do not need is much greater centralization and harmonization. What we very badly need to make the European Union work [better] is [instead] to enhance democratic accountability."

Of course, the new British position also can be interpreted not so much as a prointegrationist move but, on the contrary, as a means of finally limiting EU power. Straw hinted at this in his speech, in which he referred to "reassuring" the public that national governments will remain the primary source of political legitimacy.

What Britain really wants is clearly defined limits on Brussels' powers.

London is aware that over the past 50 years, the EU has gathered more and more tasks and competencies, at an ever accelerating pace. Now, the bulk of the laws in the EU are framed in Brussels rather than in the parliaments of the member states.

The possibility exists that the convention, which is chaired by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, could produce a document much more integrationist than London would support. That would set the stage for hard bargaining between the "federalists" and those countries such as Britain that fear a loss of national identity.

Brussels-based analyst Karel Lannoo said the very word "constitution" implies a document that would bring a higher degree of integration than was achieved under the EU's various binding treaties. Lannoo, the acting director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, put it this way: "If you now call it a constitution, instead of a treaty, it probably shows that you want to go deeper and make something which is really the starting point for arrangements more integrated than previously."

Lannoo linked the sudden British warmth for a constitution to the issue of Britain's future membership in the common-currency euro-zone. He said the Blair government is seeking to project a positive view of its participation in EU affairs to enhance the likelihood of a "yes" result in a planned referendum on U.K. membership in the euro-zone. The stakes are high, he said. "In the political establishment in the U.K., the view is now increasingly clear that they should join the economic and monetary union [the euro-zone]. So that means they need to prepare the road to be able to join. They cannot afford a referendum whose result could turn out to be negative," Lannoo said.

Italy, a founding member of what is now the EU, has been loyal to the European ideal over the decades. But the present government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is much cooler to that idea, and some of his ministers are outright hostile.

The latest criticism comes from Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, who was quoted as saying in the "La Stampa" daily on the weekend that federalist ideas that are circulating at the convention, such as an integrationist constitution, adversely affect democracy in the union.

Tremonti said he is concerned at the preoccupation with the creation of a single state, in which Brussels would play a role like that of the U.S. capital in Washington. He sees the rival notion of a loose union of sovereign states as being forgotten. He claimed that the final result of federalization will be to dilute democracy "throughout the whole structure."

And Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt recently raised eyebrows when he called for any future EU constitution to contain mutual security guarantees for all members. He also called for an integrated EU military command and an EU armaments agency.

This would represent a radical change from the current situation. Presently, there is no mutual defense obligation codified by an EU treaty, and the EU does not yet have any deployable military forces of its own.

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