Constitution Won’t Turn EU Into U.S.

Niall Ferguson's recent book, "Colossus: The Price of American Empire," was published by Penguin.

Is the recently drafted European constitution a blueprint for a United States of Europe -- a full-fledged federation like the U.S. on the other side of the Atlantic?

Unfortunately for its prospects, that is exactly the view of a large proportion of British voters, who have been promised a referendum in which they can ratify or reject it. It turns out that they have no desire whatever for Britain to become just one of 25 states in a new U.S.E.

If they do vote it down, then one of two things will happen. Either the constitution will be a dead letter and the enlarged European Union, Britain included, will just muddle along under the old rules. Or -- as a growing number of Britons seem to wish -- Britain will leave the EU altogether, becoming a kind of offshore Switzerland.

Neither of these scenarios would be good for Britain or Europe. Without constitutional reform, the enlarged EU risks being gridlocked. And the British, if they were to leave the EU, would find their economic and political clout -- most obviously in trade negotiations with the United States -- severely reduced. Suddenly, a great deal hinges on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ability to persuade his countrymen that the constitution would work to their advantage and would not rob Britain of its independence.


In some respects, this is a difficult argument to make. The EU already has -- and, indeed, has long had -- a federal character. This is most obvious in the legal sphere. Article I-10 of the draft constitution simply reiterates what has long been an established principle, namely that EU law is superior to national law. To make this even clearer, the constitution includes a new Charter of Fundamental Rights, which would fall to the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice to interpret, thus strengthening its claim to be Europe’s Supreme Court. It also creates a new category of cross-border crimes, which would become the responsibility of a European prosecutor.

Moreover, the EU already has many of the political institutions that one would expect a federation to have: not only a Supreme Court but also what the Germans would call a Bundesrat (the Council of Ministers, representing the governments of the member states), a parliament, a central bank and a permanent bureaucracy. The institutional changes in the constitution are partly designed to give this proto-federation not just legal but actual personality -- for example, by creating a single European foreign minister.

But the crucial question is this: How far would the constitution increase the jurisdiction of the EU relative to the member states? Or, to be more precise, how far would it erode the ability of individual governments to veto EU legislation brought before the Council of Ministers? Until now, only a limited number of policy areas -- 34 to be exact -- have been subject to the weighted system known as “qualified majority voting” on the Council of Ministers. New legislation in all other fields has required unanimity -- in other words, it has been subject to veto by as few as one of the member states.

The crucial change envisaged by the constitution is that qualified majority voting would now apply in 70 areas -- double the present number -- including immigration and social policy. But there are still plenty of important areas in which the constitution would not increase the EU’s power. As Blair has insisted all along, the national veto would remain in three crucial areas: foreign policy, defense and taxation.


The bottom line is that the constitution sounds more revolutionary than it really is; in fact, it would not significantly change the nature of the EU. In essence, it would enable it to do more of what it already does to integrate the European economy, national taxation apart. That is hardly a radical reform.

British voters must also understand the benefits for their nation. The point many seem to have missed is that by changing the system of qualified majority voting, the constitution actually would be quite advantageous to Britain -- and to the other members of the ‘big four’ (Germany, France and Italy), which together account for about 70% of the enlarged EU’s gross domestic product and 57% of its population.

Under the old system of weighted votes, the big countries were clearly disadvantaged. Take Germany. In the pre- enlargement EU, it accounted for about 22% of the population but had just 11.5% of votes on the Council of Ministers. Britain was next worst off in terms of underrepresentation.

Under the draft constitution, by contrast, any EU measure subject to qualified majority voting would be passed if it had the support of 55% of the member states, provided they represented at least 65% of the EU’s population. Germany would have, in effect, 18% of council votes and Britain 13%. In effect, a measure could have the support of all 21 of the other member states, but it would fail if the big four opposed it. Indeed, any measure that was opposed by both Britain and Germany would stand only a slim chance of success.

The EU’s draft constitution may be as clumsy as the American Constitution is a thing of beauty. But precisely that fact should endear it to British skeptics, for it is manifestly not a blueprint for a new United States. A vote for the constitution will be, as Blair rightly insists, a vote in Britain’s national interest.