N. 27 February 2003 | The false alternatives in play in Brussels

At the Brussels Convention we'll have to choose between two intergovernmental models, this is what's at stake: the so-called community method on the one hand, a partially disguised one advocated by small Member States, and on the other hand a more explicit model backed by the larger States. A dispute that undermines cohesion among the orignal group of States, the only ones that can bring about Europe's unification.

Today, parallels are frequently being drawn between the work of the Convention in Brussels and the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. One of the clearest of these parallels concerns the cracks that run through each of them. The divide within the Philadelphia Convention placed the representatives of the large states in opposition to those of the small states. The former wanted to be attributed more weight in the future constitution – a weight proportional to the larger size of their population. The latter, on the other hand, feared that they would be crushed under the weight of the former and wanted the constitution to sanction, as was the case under the Articles of Confederation, the full equality of all the states. The confrontation between the two centred essentially on how the legislative power should be structured. The large states wanted proportional representation; the small ones that each state be attributed the same number of votes.

It was, of course, the reaching of a compromise between these two positions that led, through the splitting of legislative power between two branches, to the founding of the United States of America. In one of these branches the citizens were represented proportionally according to their number and in the other all the states were represented on an equal footing. It was precisely this compromise that gave rise to the historically unprecedented idea of a State of States, a momentous innovation for which we remain indebted to the founding fathers of Philadelphia and to the conventions that, in the thirteen former colonies, ratified the constitution.

Today, both within the Brussels Convention and in the debate that is unfolding around it, similar differences are emerging, even though this time they concern the structure of the executive. The representatives of the large states (with the partial exception of Germany) want to strengthen the president of the European Council, extending his mandate and increasing his prestige, and possibly his powers. The representatives of the small states, on the other hand, want to strengthen the Commission, a body within which they carry, proportionally, more weight than the large states and whose president they would like to see elected by the Parliament (indeed, the Commission as a whole is already confirmed by a vote of the Parliament, even though this innovation, contained in the Maastricht Treaty, has added neither to its efficiency nor to its support among the electorate).

But these parallels must not be allowed to distract us from the fundamental difference that separates these two conventions – a difference that lies in the fact that the Brussels Convention is not destined to lead to the birth of a European federation. In Brussels, the stakes are much lower, it being essentially a question of choosing between two intergovernmental models: one more explicit (supported by the larger states) and the other (preferred by the small states) partially masked, i.e., the so-called community method by which the European Community first and the EU latterly have, for better or worse, to date been governed.

The clash between these two positions will certainly give rise to some form of compromise, but not to a solution in any way comparable to that which emerged in Philadelphia. The reason for this impossibility can be sought in the framework within which the so-called constitution that will come out of the Convention, and the intergovernmental conference that will meet in its wake, is today discussed and will tomorrow be applied. It is clear to everyone that the creation of a twenty-five-member federal state (or even a fifteen-member one and certainly a federal state that embraces the United Kingdom) is quite inconceivable. Thus, whatever form it takes, the solution that eventually comes out of the Convention and subsequent IGC will not, in any case, be able to halt the process – clear to all – of growing decision-making paralysis within the European Union.

The real problem that must be addressed by those wishing to push Europe along the road to its unification is thus (as some, with greater or lesser clarity, have already started to say) that of changing this framework. In other words, it is a question of re-starting the process of unification through an initiative on the part of Europe’s six founder member-states. And of doing this from a clearly federal perspective that could, initially, be restricted to the Six, should no other member-state be immediately willing to follow their example. It is thus essential that this hope of getting the process re-started is not allowed to boil down to a mere strengthening of intergovernmental cooperation between France and Germany, which, while constituting a necessary step in the right direction, is, by itself, certainly not enough. A strengthening of the Franco-German axis, leaving aside its impact as a signal of change, would not tackle the decisive question of the overcoming of national sovereignty; furthermore, exclusion of the other four countries that, thanks to their shared history, depth of integration and European consciousness would be natural members of a vanguard federal core, would suffocate the latter at birth, evoking the idea of a Directorate and reproducing within the Six the same tensions between large and medium-size/small countries that we are today witnessing within the European Union. The current strengthening of French-German entente should thus be followed with great interest, but also with an awareness that it is, for the time being, emerging within a framework that presents these two fundamental limits, and that it reflects an attempt to marry contradictions, i.e., an attempt by weak institutions to implement strong policies.

The step that must now be taken is thus a very difficult one. But on it rides the salvation of Europe, a Europe whose complete impotence, both internally and externally, is becoming more dramatically evident all the time. And the problems Europe faces can wait no longer.


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