Europe's constitutional crisis.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Dec. 16 2003 5:08 PM

Europe's Constitutional Crisis

Who's to blame for this weekend's diplomatic donnybrook?

The sound of an angry Europe unraveling—or, at least, of the vision of an integrated Europe that prevailed throughout the 1990s fraying—was drowned out Sunday by a certain discovery in a hole next to a mud hut in faraway Mesopotamia. As London's Daily Telegraph put it in an editorial, "Not the least of the side effects of Saddam Hussein's capture was to spare the blushes of European Union leaders, whose weekend summit in Brussels collapsed acrimoniously while the eyes of the world were on Iraq."

The summit of present and future EU nations was supposed to reach agreement on Europe's first constitution. In the end, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi—hardly the most diplomatic chap to come to down the pike—failed to break the impasse between Poland and Spain on one side and France and Germany on the other. As the rotating president of the European Union, Berlusconi was hoping to resolve differences on the text of the constitution—an agreement already six months overdue—before his terms ends Dec. 31, thus dubbing the accord the new "Treaty of Rome" after the 1957 pact that established the European Economic Community.

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It wasn't to be. In the end, it all came down to voting rights for individual countries. What Poland and Spain wanted, in a nutshell, is virtually equal footing with Europe's most populous countries (France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom). The draft text of the constitution, on the other hand, calls for a more mathematical way of counting votes in tune with each country's relative size, putting Poland and Spain (Europe's two midsized countries at about 40 million each) at a relative disadvantage. (If you're interested in the nitty-gritty, start with this handy BBC backgrounder.)

Saturday's non-decision was more or less expected, so Sunday editorialists had their one-liners ready. Disagreements fell mainly along national lines, and Poland came under particularly heavy fire. On the Friday before the summit, when the prospects for a breakthrough looked dim, German papers were already directing their venom eastward to Warsaw. No other country has supported Poland's EU aspirations more than Germany, wrote Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel,and the "thanks Germany now gets for that friendship is the potential failure of the European constitution." (German translations courtesy of Deutsche Welle radio.)

Things only get uglier from there. It's France's fault, said Spain's El Mundo: "Chirac rejected in advance any sort of compromise with Spain's position. If we are looking for the most inflexible country, then it has to be France." No, Berlusconi's to blame, says El País. "The person most to blame for the disaster was the chairman of this European Council, Silvio Berlusconi, a specialist in glib, bad jokes but useless when it comes to conducting complex, multilateral negotiations."

"The Brussels summit fails due to Poland's national interests," wrote Der Tagesspiegelon Sunday. Others claimed the United States shares the blame. "It is on the strength of full U.S. backing that Poland allied itself with Spain, threatening to blow the European Constitution sky-high," said Greece's Adhesmevtos Tipos. (Spanish, German, and Greek translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Poland just doesn't get it, said Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung. "[Warsaw's] insistence on a disproportionate weight of its vote in the council of ministers shows that the Polish government has failed to understand that giving up sovereignty is the secret of Europe's success," the paper wrote. (Translation courtesy of the Guardian.)

The Independent's insider piece quotes diplomats indicating that Poland may indeed have blundered by calling the big guns' bluff. Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar was open to discussing a compromise put forward by the other side, but the Poles, who thought the offer was merely an opening gambit and that more concessions would soon follow, wouldn't budge. The heavyweights—British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder—then went to Berlusconi and effectively said, "We're outta here."

Poland was soon on the defensive, despite the large number of Euro-skeptics who said it has nothing to be defensive about. "It is impossible to place the responsibility for the absence of an agreement on one particular country," said Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, according to the BBC. Some senior statesmen are now openly speaking of a "two-speed" Europe, with core members going ahead with further integration on their own. "One possibility is that [France and Germany] could announce plans to combine or co-ordinate their diplomatic staffs, another that they would draw up plans for integration of judicial systems," wrote the Independent, citing no authority other than itself.

In a reflection of fading enthusiasm for the European Union, the Guardian ran a pessimistic commentary in which the author expressed mock horror over the fact that Poland and Spain, not Britain, had brought the constitutional process to a halt. Under pressure from the Tories and the conservative press, London has long spoken of killing the constitution if certain national vetoes in areas like security and taxation—"red lines," they have called them—were not preserved. "[T]he fascinating news from Brussels is how irrelevant we already are. Did we safeguard our fabled red lines? Yes: but nobody could really be bothered to discuss them, nobody cared. The problem wasn't the UK playing its Atlantic-bridge games again, the problem was Madrid, Warsaw, Ankara, Tallin, Prague."