Saturday, March 26, 2005

Very little of what you always wanted to know about the EU Constitution

Two recent polls in France have indicated that if the referendum on the EU Constitution were held today, the French would vote against it. This has sent the entire French political class into a panic, because no one is quite sure what would happen if French voters actually vote against the Constitution.

In a discussion yesterday morning on Radio Classique, someone (sorry, can’t remember who it was) pointed out that the Constitution has a very French flavor to it. A Frenchman presided over the drafting of it, and many ideas dear to France were included. So in Brussels, there’s just plain confusion about France at the moment, he said. Another participant in the discussion said that Europe hadn’t quite decided yet whether it wants a "United States of Europe", with a strong federal government and tight political, monetary and fiscal integration, i.e. an extension of the euro zone, or a big free trade area, where goods and services can circulate with a minimum of restrictions, but no real political union.

If the Bolkestein directive is any indication, French people do not want a big free-trade area. They have a mistrust of Brussels generally, of free-market ideology, which here is called “libéralisme”. The Bolkestein directive, a Brussels initiative, would have allowed services approved in one EU country to be sold in every other EU country. Personally, I thought this was already the case (e.g. insurance), but OK, I hadn’t been paying attention. The French cried “dumping social !” and president Chirac demanded that the text be rescinded, modified, delayed or all of the above, which he obtained.

From my scattered discussions with people here, many seem to think Europe is moving ahead too quickly. Ten, twelve, fifteen, now twenty-five countries, soon who knows how many more. Will the EU be a victim of its success? Will it collapse under the weight of its own bureaucracy? The prospect of Turkey entering only exacerbates this feeling of uncertainty.

People are also unhappy with the government’s economic policies – unemployment is creeping up, so is the workweek, a cause célèbre here – and alarmed that the economics minister needed a 600m² (6,000 ft²) apartment in central Paris for himself, his wife and his eight children and that he “didn’t know” the price of said apartment (he was forced to resign).

Now, just when the government is supposed to launch its “oui” campaign, it is beset with infighting. Both the mainstream left and the mainstream right support the constitution, but the right has managed to disagree with itself. Some see the prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as the problem. As outside France, the name Jean-Pierre Raffarin probably evokes more “Who?” than any other reaction, just think Gérard Depardieu minus stage presence. Never viewed as charismatic, even in France, Mr. Raffarin now has his own party members telling him that his government’s image problems make him a liability in the campaign. They’re very concerned that the upcoming referendum on the EU constitution will turn into a vote of confidence on the government’s domestic policies. Consequently they’re talking about it so much that they risk turning the upcoming referendum on the EU constitution into a vote of confidence on the government’s domestic policies.

Of course, all of this has nothing to do with the EU Constitution. So I decided to have a look at what the Constitution itself actually says. Mind you, it’s long, and I also have a day job. More specifically, it’s 475 pages long, or 157,327 words – good translation work if you can get it – compared with the US constitution, which runs 8,189 words, including amendments. I chose a section more or less at random: “Protocol on special arrangements for Greenland”. Here is the essential part of the text of that “protocol”:

The treatment on import into the Union of products subject to the common organisation of the market in fishery products and originating in Greenland shall, while complying with the mechanisms of the common market organisation, involve exemption from customs duties and charges having equivalent effect and the absence of quantitative restrictions or measures having equivalent effect if the possibilities for access to Greenland fishing zones granted to the Union pursuant to an agreement between the Union and the authority responsible for Greenland are satisfactory to the Union.

Clear? I’m still savoring this section. For languages fans like me, I also found the following passage, and I’m sure there are many more like it. This is the 50th of the 50 “Declarations” annexed to the treaty after the “Protocols” (including the one quoted above) and Annexes I and II:

Declaration by the Republic of Latvia and the Republic of Hungary on the spelling of the name of the single currency in the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe: Without prejudice to the unified spelling of the name of the single currency of the European Union referred to in the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe as displayed on the banknotes and on the coins, Latvia and Hungary declare that the spelling of the name of the single currency, including its derivatives as applied throughout the Latvian and Hungarian text of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, has no effect on the existing rules of the Latvian and the Hungarian languages.

I wonder how the Greenland protocol reads in Latvian. Now I sooooo want to read the whole thing, but I’ll have to get back to you on it.



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