International Papers

David and Goliath in the EU

The publication of the first draft of the European Union’s proposed constitution Monday set off a firestorm of debate—so much so that the second part of the draft, published yesterday, and the third part, rescheduled for publishing today, have gone largely ignored. The tussle boils down to the division of power between the EU’s small and large member nations, a microcosm of which can be seen in the papers of the British Isles.

The British editorial pages are filled with charges that the proposed constitution gives the EU too much power over its members—an opinion reflecting the concerns of the other states considered among the “big six”: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland. Many of the papers are calling for a referendum for British voters to approve or reject the constitution as a protest. In smaller member states like Ireland, the debate centers not on how beholden the member states will be to the EU but on how much more power the big six will have versus the smaller states.

The Irish Independent quotes a senior German official as saying, “This is not acceptable to small member states. Do we want a directorate in Europe where the big six states decide everything? If so, it will be the end of the European Union.” Officials warn that a “major showdown lies ahead.” Another analysis in the Independent calls the document a “fudge,” noting that while there is no “f-word” in the draft (in this case, the profanity being “federal”), it definitely sets up a federal system.

Meanwhile, the London Times sounds the major concern of the bigger powers: that even the larger countries will lose ground with the constitution as it is now. “However true it may be that some of its provisions are familiar”—which is what the treaty’s supporters in the British government argue, that it doesn’t change much—”both the broad thrust of this document and many of its detailed clauses will significantly alter the balance of power between the EU and its component states,” tipping the balance of power in the EU’s favor.

The defenders of the draft treaty are few in number but not without stature. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw pens an opinion piece in the London Times, accusing constitution critics of resurrecting old battles: “Unlike past governments, we do not see Europe as our enemy. … What’s remarkable is that some people have already made up their minds that [agreement to the treaty] means the end of Britain as a nation state.” What might kill Straw’s defense, however, is citing the recent Iraq war, unpopular with most of his countrymen, as an example of a constitution requirement that Britain had already agreed to years ago: “Iraq alone shows us that claims that a common foreign policy would lead to Brussels telling us what to do are nonsense. No one could sensibly argue that a common foreign policy has tied our hands over the past decade, nor will it in the future.”

[Note to Jack Straw: While you’re busy defending John Major’s Maastrict Treaty of 1992 as an example of how Britain has already pledged to support a common foreign policy, Major has a message for Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Spectator: Reject this constitution!]

Finally, the Guardian quotes Blair as pooh-poohing the need for a referendum on the draft treaty. But the tabloids disagree. The Sun and the Daily Mail take up the rallying cry for a referendum—with the Mail even staging its own referendum, complete with polling stations in select local pubs. International Papers will drink to that.