The Constitution of Europe

The strange document that emerged from extended meetings of the Inter-Governmental Conference of member states of the European Union is technically not a constitution. Nowhere, for example, does it say "We, the people of Europe..." Instead, the document is billed merely as a "Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe," agreed to by "High Contracting Parties" - that is, national governments. It is to be ratified by national parliaments, in some cases through referenda, and it can be amended only by further Inter-Governmental Conferences, not by the European Parliament, let alone by the (non-existent) "people of Europe."

The Treaty is especially ambiguous where it uses the language of constitutions. The so-called "Charter of Fundamental Rights," for example, appears to protect civil liberties. In fact, it applies solely to acts by European Union institutions. "The provisions of this Charter are addressed to the Institutions, bodies and agencies of the Union with due regard for the principle of subsidiarity and to the Member States only when they are implementing Union law" (Art. II-51). Wherever specific rights are guaranteed, the following clause is added: "in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of these rights."

Similarly, in its description of the EU's institutions, the Treaty essentially summarizes existing law. Some new provisions - such as the weighting of national votes in the Councils of the Union - have been, and will continue to be, widely discussed. Provisions like those setting up a Commission of 25 - and perhaps soon 30 members - will probably be changed before long, because they are simply not viable. In any case, it is certain that the current text of the Treaty will not survive more than two centuries (as has the United States' Constitution), or even two decades.

So why are so many intelligent politicians making such a fuss? Europe, one must realize, is as much about symbolic acts as it is about tangible realities. This is why it has the curious quality that sometimes you see it and sometimes you don't. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had said for a long time that the Treaty was a mere tidying-up exercise and therefore not to be taken too seriously. Then the symbolic debate overwhelmed him and he changed tack entirely.