European Affairs

delegates came to the convention and deliberated, and, 16 months later, little had changed. Few Europeans were aware of the convention's existence ­ and only a handful could explain what happened there. Only Euroskeptics paid attention, exploiting public ignorance to breed conspiratorial suspicion. Testimony from civil society was requested, but only professors showed up. A conference of European youth was called, but only would-be European bureaucrats attended. So the task of preparing a constitutional draft was left, as tasks so often are in EU affairs, to parliamentarians, diplomats and Brussels insiders. No wonder, then, that the document the convention produced in July 2003 is so conservative. It is a constitutional compromise that consolidates a decade or two of creeping change. The powers of the inter-governmental Council of Ministers and of the European Parliament expand slightly at the expense of the technocratic Commission. Cooperation in justice and home affairs, energy and a few other areas is bolstered a bit. The balance between large and small countries is tweaked. Qualified majority voting and the rotating presidency are streamlined to facilitate decision-making with ten to 15 new members. Rather than the bold concept of a constitution, the goal became a deliberately ambiguous constitutional treaty ­ and one that is even more complex than the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded the European Community. None of this changes the European Union's deep-set technocratic culture of incremental compromise. Now, Peter Norman of the Financial Times has written the convention's first history. This fact-filled, reliable and balanced account is about as good as "real time" history can be. It displays most of the inherent virtues, and a few of the vices of that genre. The virtues are considerable. The European Union is an innately drab establishment, but Norman does his best to give it color and grandeur. The delegates to the convention, he writes, came "from Finnish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, to the toe of Italy in the south, and from the Portuguese Azores islands far to the west of the European mainland to Turkey's eastern frontier with Iraq, close to the cradle of civilization." He wryly describes how they are socialized into the modern European Union ­ learning to endure interminable interventions in a dozen languages, to manipulate acronym-laden Eurospeak, and to form complex multinational tactical coalitions. Norman is an old Brussels hand. He knows that, idealistic rhetoric about democracy notwithstanding, EU negotiations (like all important political events) are managed by influential insiders. He also knows that Euroskeptic rhetoric notwithstanding, the critical insiders are not members of the Commission ­ a body whose lack of diplomacy and extreme views relegate it to a background role in this story. Instead, the key players are national officials and politicians, plus a few members of the European Parliament. British diplomat Sir John Kerr, the convention's secretary general, glides silently behind the scenes, blocking federalist excesses without leaving fingerprints. Heavy-set former union boss Jean-Luc Dehaene, his political instincts honed as prime minister of ungovernable Belgium, twists the arms of the recalcitrant. Constitutional lawyer and former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, slim and elegant, deftly guides long drafting sessions with elliptical interventions on legal technicalities. And above them all towers Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the last of the generation of European politicians inspired by integration because of their experiences in World War II. Once President of France ­ and now, briefly, a president again ­ he aspires to go down in history as a Philadelphian founding father, and thus takes care to obscure his Machiavellian machinations with grand statements and imperious wit. Norman portrays the scene with admirable clarity. He also avoids the greatest danger of "real time" history: capture by one's sources. In part because the European Union is such a diverse and open system, with so many different national points of view represented, there is less danger than usual of exploitation by a few self-interested sources on which one is dependent. (Bob Woodward's early book on the Bush presidency fell into this trap.) Thus The Accidental Constitution ­ paired, perhaps, with Peter Ludlow's The Making of the New Europe in the same series, on the subsequent intergovernmental discussions ­ will be indispensable for future analysis of the convention. That said, history in real time has its limitations. Among the most important is the lack of historical perspective. Viewed close up, events often seem to be driven by coincidence, quirky personalities and random convergence of interest. The book's title underscores Norman's view that the outcome was the unpredictable result of many contingent events. In arguing this, he combines something of the genial disdain for broad interpretations often professed by old-fashioned English historians with a hard-bitten journalistic skepticism about the ability of individuals to know what they are doing. This belief that the outcome of the convention was not preordained tempts Norman to be partisan. As the process moves along, one senses him slowly siding with the more ambitious proponents of federalism against the member-state skeptics. Not only could the outcome have been different, he implies, but it could have been better. Olivier Duhamel, a French veteran of the "events" of May 1968 in Paris, becomes a hero when he declares before the convention: "We are deadlocked. Certain people are trying to stop us. Don't let them sabotage our work!" By contrast, Gisela Stuart, the British MP caught between Downing Street's demands and the views of continental parliamentarians she was nominated to represent, comes off as the villain. Yet Norman's own reporting reveals a somewhat different story. Looking back, it is clear that the convention had far less room for real choice than his account implies. After discussing fundamental institutional change for a decade, few options remained because the European Union is ultimately an intergovernmental organization. Throughout the convention, national governments lurked in the shadows. Norman demonstrates time and again that their interventions were decisive. An informal Franco-German paper in January 2003 was a "turning point," setting the terms for the ultimate institutional compromise. Britain moved behind the scenes to secure its "red lines" on tax, defense and social policy. Small governments demanded greater voting power. Fiscal issues were handled outside the convention, where spending was capped, the common agricultural policy was secured, and the "stability and growth pact" scotched. In the final days of the convention, Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, flew in to impose critical German demands. Perhaps most important, Giscard d'Estaing, fearing that governments would pick apart the draft constitution, constantly consulted them and incorporated the resulting limits. Finally, of course, the convention refused to let Poland and Spain maintain the inflated voting weights they had been granted at the EU summit meeting in Nice in December 2000, and they responded by sinking the Brussels summit meeting three years later that was to approve the treaty. The result was a document that still had to be revised by national governments, and which many national electorates may not have a chance to ratify. The true lesson of the constitutional convention is that the outcome was destined to be conservative. European integration remains tightly constrained by what national governments and their publics will accept. In the absence of a "grand project" ­ such as the single market, the single currency or enlargement ­ fundamental institutional change is unlikely. Polls show that European citizens, even if skeptical of Brussels, favor a system close to the one they have today. It is national governments that enjoy democratic legitimacy; it is national governments that are mainly responsible for policy implementation. The EU constitutional structure we see today is the one we are likely to see for a generation or more ­ and the failure of the convention to generate radical reform reveals why.

This review first appeared in Prospect magazine in Britain.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number II in the Spring of 2004.