France And The EU Constitution

Lynne Kiesling

I truly do not know what to think about the proposed EU Constitution. Should I be in favor of it or not? Not that I get a vote, but just to satisfy myself intellectually I’d like to formulate a reasonably informed opinion.

On 29 May the French people will be able to vote in a referendum on the proposed EU Constitution, and most observers think that they will vote non. An article in this week’s Economist does a nice job of summarizing the issues:

One reason for the surprising strength of the no camp may be the confusion over just what the constitution is about. The official French position, backed by Mr Chirac, is that the constitution bolsters France’s place in Europe, and the French ideal of Europe. The constitution, after all, will strengthen European foreign policy, long a French goal, by creating an EU foreign minister. It includes a charter of fundamental rights, some of which are typically French rights regarding employment and welfare. …

On the right, a confusing issue has been Turkey. Many in France are opposed to Turkish membership of the EU, and there is a false impression that the constitution leads inevitably to this. Not only is the far right, symbolised by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a xenophobic crank, opposed to Turkey’s joining. Mr Chirac’s own party, the Union for a Popular Majority, is against as well, despite the president’s own support. …

Predictably, left-wing elements say that the constitution does not go far enough in creating political union and “social Europe”. … As on the right, there is confusion over the constitution’s implications. The French left, in particular, opposes a European Commission directive that would liberalise trade in services across Europe. This has nothing to do with the constitution, and Mr Chirac anyway successfully blocked progress on passing the directive at the last summit of EU leaders. But the impression that the constitution entrenches “Anglo-Saxon” liberal market policies has lingered.

Many of the objections that I have heard to the constitution come from a very protectionist perspective, particularly with respect to agriculture. In fact, I have seen a couple of interviews on TV with French farmers who complain that the proposed constitution is “too free-market”, and that it will “unfairly” force them to compete with farmers in the new EU countries in Eastern Europe who have lower costs. Such an assertion begs the question of why those farmers have lower costs, why French costs might not fall in the face of such competition, or even why so many French farmers still farm at all if their costs are so high, but …

This fact suggests that I should support the constitution, given my firmly and enthusiastically pro-free-trade position. But there is something about increased central authority in Brussels that just nags at me. Does this constitution really embody liberal and free-trade principles, or does it introduce increased bureaucracy in another layer? Or, more pragmatically, is this constitution an incremental step in the direction of liberal and free-trade principles, one that can lead to further future liberalization?

According to Jacques deGuenin’s recent essay for Liberté Cherie, the French free-market liberal organization, EU rules up to this point have incrementally moved in this direction:

Les règles de l’union nous ont peu à peu amenés à ouvrir à la concurrence les services dits publics, c’est à dire ceux qui prennent le public en otage pour défendre les intérêts de leurs salariés, comme la Poste, les télécoms, la SNCF, l’EDF, la Sécurité Sociale. Chaque fois nous y avons gagné. Et cela ne fait que commencer.

which roughly translates as

EU rules have little by little led to opening public services to competition, i.e., those that take the public hostage to defend the interests of their employees, such as the post office, telecoms, the SNCF, EDF, and social security. Each time liberalization won. And that was just the beginning.

This is true, as I see in my work with European economists who are in the midst of designing EU-wide rules for opening electric power markets. DeGuenin argues further that the EU constitution will make Europe more democratic, which may well be true. But does that lead to increased liberalization, competition, and economic liberty? Maybe. Or maybe not. DeGuenin concludes that the French liberal should view the constitution as a protection of liberty, not a threat. Another essay at Liberté Cherie also supports this stand, as does this editorial from the Centre for European Reform from 2003.

OK. So why does this nagging suspicion of concentrated EU power in Brussels persist in my mind? I would greatly appreciate some enlightenment from someone whose opinion I trust, like Mr. Seat. Anyone?


8 thoughts on “France And The EU Constitution

  1. To those of us looking into France, rather than looking out from it, the French idea that the Constitution is too liberal is laughable. (I should admit here that I don’t think there should be an EU at all.)
    The constitution sets in stone a number of entirely illiberal (in the classical sense of Liberal) measures, is essentially a blueprint for a social democratic society. For example, the committment to sustainable development, a major plank of which is reduced income inequality. One can argue for or against that policy, of course, but to have it in the Constitution?
    Another way of looking at the EU as a whole is not as a free tradeing body at all, but as a zollverein or customs union. Free trade within it, yes, but with heavy external barriers. This is to support the European exemption, that interesting idea that as the moral values of Europe are different, they must be protected from the economic blasts from the US of Far East.
    Yet another way to look at it….the UK is decidedly less free market than the US, yet within Europe we are regarded as frightningly laissez faire. That shows quite how far left the basic EU opinions are on matters economic.

  2. In the UK opponents of the constitution claim that it will stifle our anglo-saxon deregulated free market with Franco-German “social market” concepts and we will end up with 3m unemployed and no City of London; in France the opponents of the constitution argue that it will introduce anglo-saxon work practices that will end the social market and the 35 hour week and allow Polish hairdressers to set up mobile salons in the Jardin de Luxembourg. In addition Pres Chirac argued on TV the other night that the constitution was vital if France was to avoid swarms of Polish hairdressers etc

    The confusion arises over the implementation of the Bolkestein Directive which will introduce greater freedoms of movement and establishment (Polish hairdressers) – France did not object to the directive when it went through the Council of Ministers, but now it is seen as a threat to the French way of life etc etc. The current French administration will seek to block any liberalisation of service provision in the EU and this includes the wider Lisbon agenda – designed to make the EU more competitive.

    Someone who supports free trade, and the EU freedoms (movement, establishment, service and capital), should encourage the EU Institutions to continue to reduce the barriers to trade within and without the EU. The Constitution will not, of itself, make the EU a more competitive nor a more productive place, and I have an instinctive hostility to new governmental structures, which the Constitution creates.

  3. Why the French do not know, what to vote?

    1- How many people do you know, who could reliably understand the EU Constitution after reading it 3 or 4 times, say?

    2- Who would actually know what some 50 pages of conflicting “Basic Rights” was going to mean to his future?

    3- Who in his right mind would want to give power to the people, who sold him the Euro and then sold out the Stability Pact?

    4- Would you trust someone, whom the public prosecuter seems not to totally trust?

  4. Many changes in the constitution are in the institutional procedures, the structure of voting , and the range of issues over which QMV applies. There are a number of difficulties in interpreting what it all means:

    1. A large number of changes are institutional tinkering. The significance (or not) of changes really partly depends on a good understanding of how the procedures actually work. Not easy for outsiders (and sometimes not for insiders…..)

    2. Statement of broad principles and objectives are couched in terms that can be given shades of meaning. I have no objection to ‘sustainable development’ as an objective. But saying it and explaining what it means to operationalise it are different things.

    3. The effect of some changes is not easily predictable in any case. For example, How will the new new structures for foreign policy coordination work? Or what REAL difference will incorporating various charters make – are they just nice words or do they lead to policy?

    4. Whether or not we can predict effects, people assess the desirability of the changes in the Constitution differently and this colours the interpretation (eg is it desirable that we bring foreign policy into the EU institutional framework?

    My personal reading is that in terms of concrete policy though this constitution does not change all that much (except maybe in the foreign policy structures, above). Key policy vetoes (eg tax, financial perspectives) are retained, and the extension of QMV is not dramatic. Life in the EU institutions will go on pretty much as before.

    Basically therefore, I think that it is probably correct to say this is much more in line with what the British wanted from a Constitution than what the French wanted. But then I’m an economist not a lawyer, and I work on policy areas where nothing much will change. Caveat emptor.

    As far as the overall ‘world view’ goes, it is certainly true to say this constitution is not a ‘classically liberal’ world view – it goes beyond that in terms of principles and objectives.

    But then the preambles to the original EU treaties are also remarkably strongly worded – so much so that many Brits would be aghast if they knew what they said – so in some sense all this is nothing new.

    This helps to understand a little bit the different positions of the british and the french opponents and their logic

    The French opponents see it as a Treaty that does not does not push the european ‘project’ and the language of the ‘european social model’ (whatever that is – never too clear) any further than existing Treaties. Worse, they see it as pushing market liberalisation in key ares (though this has been coming for year anyway, with or without Constitution).

    This position takes as an axiom that the EU is a vehicle to spread a French view of the world. The Constitution does not make progress in this sense. So they dislike it. This feeling is all the more sharp in the context of the current wave of soul searching in france lately over the decline of French political influence.

    On the other hand, the British eurosceptics can point to the grandiose (if vague) objectives of the constitution and use this to paint a picture of the constitution as inventing an orwellian super state. While in reality the words are pretty much run of the mill when seen in context of earlier treaties.

    But in any case – the point is that almost every day 25 member states now interact via the EU institutions. A great deal of business is done in brussels. Unfortunately very few of the general population understand what europe does or does not do, or how it all works

  5. Many changes in the constitution are in the institutional procedures, the structure of voting , and the range of issues over which QMV applies. There are a number of difficulties in interpreting what it all means:

    1. A large number of changes are institutional tinkering. The significance (or not) of changes really partly depends on a good understanding of how the procedures actually work. Not easy for outsiders (and sometimes not for insiders…..)

    2. Statement of broad principles and objectives are couched in terms that can be given shades of meaning. I have no objection to ‘sustainable development’ as an objective. But saying it and explaining what it means to operationalise it are different things.

    3. The effect of some changes is not easily predictable in any case. For example, How will the new new structures for foreign policy coordination work? Or what REAL difference will incorporating various charters make – are they just nice words or do they lead to policy?

    4. Whether or not we can predict effects, people assess the desirability of the changes in the Constitution differently and this colours the interpretation (eg is it desirable that we bring foreign policy into the EU institutional framework?

    My personal reading is that in terms of concrete policy though this constitution does not change all that much (except maybe in the foreign policy structures, above). Key policy vetoes (eg tax, financial perspectives) are retained, and the extension of QMV is not dramatic. Life in the EU institutions will go on pretty much as before.

    Basically therefore, I think that it is probably correct to say this is much more in line with what the British wanted from a Constitution than what the French wanted. But then I’m an economist not a lawyer, and I work on policy areas where nothing much will change. Caveat emptor.

    As far as the overall ‘world view’ goes, it is certainly true to say this constitution is not a ‘classically liberal’ world view – it goes beyond that in terms of principles and objectives.

    But then the preambles to the original EU treaties are also remarkably strongly worded – so much so that many Brits would be aghast if they knew what they said – so in some sense all this is nothing new.

    This helps to understand a little bit the different positions of the british and the french opponents and their logic

    The French opponents see it as a Treaty that does not does not push the european ‘project’ and the language of the ‘european social model’ (whatever that is – never too clear) any further than existing Treaties. Worse, they see it as pushing market liberalisation in key ares (though this has been coming for year anyway, with or without Constitution).

    This position takes as an axiom that the EU is a vehicle to spread a French view of the world. The Constitution does not make progress in this sense. So they dislike it. This feeling is all the more sharp in the context of the current wave of soul searching in france lately over the decline of French political influence.

    On the other hand, the British eurosceptics can point to the grandiose (if vague) objectives of the constitution and use this to paint a picture of the constitution as inventing an orwellian super state. While in reality the words are pretty much run of the mill when seen in context of earlier treaties.

    But in any case – the point is that almost every day 25 member states now interact via the EU institutions. A great deal of business is done in brussels. Unfortunately very few of the general population understand what europe does or does not do, or how it all works

  6. ” Each time liberalization won. And that was just the beginning.”
    –> the translation is inexact. It’s “Each time we [consumers] have won things [thanks to liberalization]”.

    “does it introduce increased bureaucracy in another layer?”
    —> NO, NO, and NO !
    Several things:
    1. Today, the EU is ruled by many texts (Treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Athens, Chart offundamental rights,…). If you add all these texts, you have thousands of pages. Very complex…
    The constitution (which is actually NOT a real constitution but a TREATY between states) will get all these former texts out, and will go the ONLY text who rules the EU, a 485 pages text (instead of thousands of pages)
    2.Today, there are 2 kind of EU foreign ministers (Javier Solana from spain, and i have forgotten the other one..). The two functions are going to be merged. The constitution does not create a single institution, it just changes the way present institutions operate.
    3. You talk about the “brussel control”, but there is one important principe in the constitution: “le principe de subsidiarité”. In means that, throughout the EU, things must be done and implemented by the most local institutions (district, region, state, and THEN, if former are not able to achive it, it goes to brussel)!.
    4. Most “laws” made in brussel are not real laws, they are “directives”. It means just they just telll the goal (have a common currency for instance) and it’s up to the local institutions to implement goals.
    5. The executive power of the EU is in the commission hands. Each of the 25 commissionner nomination has to be approved by a vote by the EU parliament. EU parliamant representants are directly elected by europeans. Isn’t it democratic ?

  7. ” Each time liberalization won. And that was just the beginning.”
    –> the translation is inexact. It’s “Each time we [consumers] have won things [thanks to liberalization]”.

    “does it introduce increased bureaucracy in another layer?”
    —> NO, NO, and NO !
    Several things:
    1. Today, the EU is ruled by many texts (Treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Athens, Chart offundamental rights,…). If you add all these texts, you have thousands of pages. Very complex…
    The constitution (which is actually NOT a real constitution but a TREATY between states) will get all these former texts out, and will go the ONLY text who rules the EU, a 485 pages text (instead of thousands of pages)
    2.Today, there are 2 kind of EU foreign ministers (Javier Solana from spain, and i have forgotten the other one..). The two functions are going to be merged. The constitution does not create a single institution, it just changes the way present institutions operate.
    3. You talk about the “brussel control”, but there is one important principe in the constitution: “le principe de subsidiarité”. In means that, throughout the EU, things must be done and implemented by the most local institutions (district, region, state, and THEN, if former are not able to achive it, it goes to brussel)!.
    4. Most “laws” made in brussel are not real laws, they are “directives”. It means just they just telll the goal (have a common currency for instance) and it’s up to the local institutions to implement goals.
    5. The executive power of the EU is in the commission hands. Each of the 25 commissionner nomination has to be approved by a vote by the EU parliament. EU parliamant representants are directly elected by europeans. Isn’t it democratic ?

  8. Lynne,

    I am sorry to contracdict you, but the number of people working in “Brussels” or more precise the EU beauracacy is very smal. The city of Stockholm employs more people. Yes yes I am aware that the Swedes are not the most lean public employers.
    Nevertheless if you want to make this complex “beast” work you need people, decidated people who are on the EUs payrole. Its 25 countries , all with very differnt histories (our grandfathers .
    used to kill eachothers for …) and cultures, never mind languages. I stoped counting when we passsed 10 and one does not even have a Arabic alphabet. Last one: one of the problems causing the ever returning scandals about finances is due that the EU cannot afford the manpower it needs. It turns creative and the openings get abused. We all foundly remember former Commisoner Mrs Edith Cresont. Anybody who has ever worked in and Headcount driven company knows all about it…

    Mvh & best regards,

    Daniel

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