N. 17 January 2001 | After Nice, the Union’s season of partial reforms has ended

There can be no solution to the institutional issues that were addressed in Nice in the EU's current political and institutional framework. On the contrary, they can only be resolved by treating them as elements of a federal constitution in the context of a comprehensive reform of the Union.

The meeting of the European Council in Nice ended in total failure. It was a predictable outcome, and since there was no reason prior to the summit to imagine that it might end any other way, there is no real reason to be disappointed by it. The crucial problems relating to the process of European unification were kept strictly off the agenda and it was, as a result, clear from the outset that Nice would provide the stage for a clash of minimalist positions. It would have been naive to expect that a compromise of great import and significance might be born of such a confrontation.

Some have attributed the poor results of the summit to a lack of willingness on the part of governments to allow the general European good to prevail over national interests. But such people seem to forget that governments of sovereign states, democratically answerable before national parliaments and national electorates, cannot do other than pursue the interests of their own nations. This takes place in Europe, as long as the Union’s institutional structure holds out, within a framework of European compatibility. But the process of European integration itself cannot be said to have advanced as a result of the prevalence of the European good over national interests, but rather because of the partial coincidence of the two: a coincidence of interests that can, depending on the circumstances, be more or less marked, or even totally absent. And when it is weak, or absent, it is national interests that inevitably prevail over European interests. Certainly, the impotence and irresponsibility demonstrated by states now rendered obsolete by the advance of the historical process only make their power squabbles look all the more petty and parochial. But there is no point seeking to pin the governments’ incapacity to carry forward the process of unification in the present political-institutional framework on a lack of willingness on their part. What is really needed is a radical debate on this political-institutional framework and a true readiness to face up to the problem of the transfer of sovereignty from the member states to the Union, in other words, to create a European government democratically answerable before a European parliament and a European electorate. And it is important to underline that while the prospect of certain governments opting, when the right conditions emerge and under the guidance of some truly enlightened leaders, to abandon their sovereignty and form a European federal state is doubtless a difficult one, it must be recognised that the idea that the same governments should renounce their pursuit of national interests without relinquishing their sovereignty represents a structural impossibility.

What all this means is that the time for haphazard reforms of the Union is over. The institutional problems tackled in Nice (as futile as they are, when viewed in isolation, insolvable) can hope to find a clear solution only if they are seen in the context of an overall reform of the Union, in other words, as aspects of a federal constitution. This affirmation is borne out by the example of majority voting, seen by some as the panacea (overcoming the obstacle of the national veto) to all the Union’s ills. It cannot fail to be noted that, in Nice, the governments were unwilling to extend the scope of the majority voting system beyond a small number of areas of secondary importance. The need for a unanimous vote was rigorously upheld in all the most important areas, and in those where it was replaced by qualified majority voting, this was subjected to conditions that render it, substantially, the same as unanimous voting.

The disappointment that this result has generated in some can derive only from a failure to understand the true nature of the Union. Majority voting is a distinguishing feature of democracy. But democracy can function only within the states, and not in relations between them. At state level, parties can oppose one another because the solidity of the institutional framework within which politics is conducted is guaranteed  by  the  citizens’  unanimous  support  for  the  constitution.  In a confederation, like the current European Union, the institutional framework, founded on agreement among the member states, is weak. If the vital interests of one or more of these states were to be threatened by the reaching of a majority decision on a topic of crucial importance, then this weak institutional framework would immediately be threatened by the probable refusal of the states in the minority to implement the decision reached. Unanimity on vital questions thus constitutes the most important element in the continued existence of the Union, and it can be expected to remain intact for as long as the Union preserves its current confederal character. It is a fact that the obligation to reach unanimous decisions renders the Union ungovernable, increasingly so as its number of members grows. But the introduction of majority voting in a confederal structure is not the way out of this impasse: this needs to be sought in the creation of the conditions required for the exercising of democracy within the Union, in other words, in its transformation into a federal state.

Having said this, it cannot fail to be noted that, in comparison with the speeches delivered by Fischer and Chirac in the months leading up to the meeting at Nice, the tone of the debate was lowered considerably. The men who had previously denounced the inadequacy of Europe’s present institutions, and vigorously voiced their support for the need for global reform, were seen, in Nice, to be engaging in bitter struggles over minor questions of national precedence and prestige, postponing any further decision on Europe’s future to an intergovernmental conference scheduled to take place in far-off 2004: a conference that is to be convened on the basis of a mandate that actually seems to betray an intention to weaken the Union rather than strengthen it. The spirit of collaboration demonstrated recently by France and Germany in their pursuit of a shared vision of the future appears to have been replaced by tension and squabbling between the two countries.

But this observation need not generate pessimism. Politicians react differently in the different settings in which they are called upon to act. In Nice, the lack of a great design rendered the emergence of irritating disputes over questions of power and prestige inevitable. But once the squabbling has died down, Europe’s leaders will once again find themselves faced with the problem of giving public opinion in their countries the impression that objectives are being pursued which, while not sacrificing national sovereignty, will nevertheless further the process of European unification: and they will then have to recognise that, after the creation of the euro, no such objective now remains.

The contradictions of the process will emerge with increasing clarity. After all, it is not by mere chance that, in the months leading up to the Nice summit, there was so much talk of federalism and of a European constitution. Events have placed the problem of the foundation of a federal core within the European Union well and truly on the agenda, and it will not now be easy to sweep this issue under the carpet. The truth remains that, until the founding of a European federation, national interests are destined to go on holding sway over the common European good. But it is also true that the deep-rooted inadequacy of the intergovernmental method will become increasingly plain and will enter ever more deeply into the consciousness and thus into the speeches of political figures. The task of federalists, out in force at a demonstration in Nice, will be to make sure that when national powers are in jeopardy, it is the European part of the divided consciousness of the Union’s leaders that prevails over the national part.


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