Leading from behind: Britain and the European Constitutional Treaty
Foreword by Jacques Delors
This British - and critical - analysis of the "constitutional process" launched at the European Council meeting in Laeken in December 2001, which went through a highly animated and productive phase during the European Convention before reaching the current deadlock at the European Council meeting in Brussels in December 2003, will no doubt be of interest to many. As one might expect from a sharp, penetrating author such as Anand Menon, the following account of this inconclusive and intense period of the Union's history is somewhat less consensual than most of the grey literature on the topic.
But above all, it provides clear insights into a change of heart which astonished most observers, from the pro-active, imaginative and positive attitude of the British delegation during the first phase of the Convention to its much more customary back-footed behaviour at the close of the negotiations. The pundits will certainly be interested by the assertion that the British internal coordination machine, widely held to be the best in Europe, is perfectly adapted to processing day-to-day business but ran into serious difficulties when it had to deal with more strategic issues.
Even more significant, to my mind, is the author's analysis of the shift in British objectives. The initial vision was very ambitious: to restore the Union's institutional balance from the top down by strengthening all of its components, including the Commission (the emphasis is mine, but the reader will find many quotes which are quite clear on this point). To be sure, Britain will be Britain and this ambition was anything but federalist (the famous "F" word...), in particular as regards the role allocated to the Commission: a super-administration with acknowledged qualities, but certainly not a European executive. Even so, British policy underwent a clear change of tack towards defiance for any institutional progress, frequently expressed with Eurosceptic overtones. The author suggests two causes, probably interconnected, for this state of affairs: the rift which the Iraq crisis opened up between the main partners and the increasing pressure from the British media and public opinion. With an ultimate paradox as the result: the United Kingdom secured a draft constitutional treaty which took on board virtually all of its demands, but continued to fight the text nonetheless.
The author is tempted to consider that this attitude on the part of New Labour is tantamount to shooting itself in the foot, since the party is neither benefiting from its negotiation successes nor playing a key role in Europe. For my part, I fail to see who could be happy at the sight of the United Kingdom giving up the sincere ambition it had at the start of the "negotiations" - to enable the Union's institutions to cope with enlargement - for a timid attitude of general distrust. Being an irrepressible optimist, I trust that this shall be only a temporary setback, and that the United Kingdom will soon rejoin the "constitutional" debate - with its own views on what the Union should be, of course, but also with the ambition of strengthening it in order to make a success of enlargement.