Global Policy Forum

EU Constitution: Blueprint for Superstate?

May 17, 2004

European Union foreign ministers are trying again this week to agree a final text for an EU constitution. Their last attempt in December ended in acrimony.

All this week our Europe correspondent Tim Franks is looking at what the constitution really means. In the first of his series he asks: Is the EU about to become a superstate?

It was described as the biggest U-turn of Tony Blair's premiership - his decision, announced last month, to hold a referendum on the European Union constitution.

Only one thing: we do not actually have an EU constitution yet, the final text has not been agreed. EU leaders want to have consensus by the middle of next month. But the constitution raises a huge number of questions.

Will it nail down the powers of the EU once and for all?
Will it mean greater centralisation - an end to 1,000 years of national self-determination, as some in Britain see it?
Or will it succeed just in bringing Europe closer to the people - making people understand better what it is the EU does, and allowing the union simply to do its job better?

Changing shape

A country has a flag, an anthem, a parliament and a currency. So does Europe.

But if Europe is a country, it is peculiarly weak.

Its budget is just over one per cent of its economic output. It cannot raise taxes. It cannot declare war. The constitution would - at the very least - alter the shape of the European Union.

The drafters see the EU changing from a three-legged beast, limping under a pile of thick treaties, into a much sleeker animal.

And that is where the dispute lies: whether we would be giving this animal the genes to overpower its 25 masters.

There would be a president and a foreign minister - two clear symbols of statehood you might think. But the new president will be more a co-ordinator than a monarch. The British are confident they will limit the powers of the foreign minister to shape policy only when every member state agrees.

Legal battles

There would also be a bold declaration that the union has its own legal personality, and that European Union law has primacy over national law.

That has been the case - in practice - ever since the UK joined the European Economic Community back in 1973.

There is no point having countries sign up to an agreement that does not bind them. It was how the French were forced to lift their unilateral ban on British beef.

Policing the principle is the European Court of Justice - in essence, a Supreme Court of the EU. The constitution may not change the role of the court. But it may change its importance.

One of the most experienced judges at the Court of Justice told me it was certain that his already growing case-load would increase further - if only because the EU would now have power not just in commercial law but justice and home affairs.

British officials have made it clear what is at stake. If the European Court of Justice starts behaving in a way that the British government cannot abide, it would call a new inter-governmental conference. And if that did not work - unlike a state in the USA, bound by a hostile ruling of its Supreme Court - the UK could decide to withdraw from this union. This constitution is - potentially - that important.

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