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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Constitution Rises From the Grave

In all the best horror movies the baddie has an uncanny ability to survive certain death -- again and again. The same could be said of the European Constitution, which received a mortal blow when French and Dutch voters rejected it in 2005 and was placed in cold storage by the British, Austrian and Finnish presidencies. It was read the last rites by a clutch of European leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

But now, thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country took over the rotating six-month European Union presidency this month, the constitution is slowly crawling out of its grave and threatening to haunt Europe's chancelleries again.

In her speech to the European Parliament last week, Merkel promised to lay out a "roadmap" for adopting the constitution by June and warned that if the re-jigged text was not agreed on by 2009 it would represent a "historical failure" for the EU.

The EU is famous for setting itself ambitious deadlines and then choosing to ignore them. In the mid-1980s, leaders agreed to establish a single market in goods, persons, services and capital by 1992. Fifteen years after that deadline, this objective is still a distant dream. Likewise, in 2000, the EU set itself the lofty goal of becoming the most competitive economy in the world within a decade. It has quietly dropped the idea.

In her speech, Merkel compared the EU to a "wonderful house" that is "even more beautiful from the inside than from the outside." Few would recognize this description in Brussels, where most of the EU's key decisions are made. If today's EU represents a building at all, it is closer to the back-end of a Belgian townhouse -- all unfinished extensions and higgledy-piggledy add-ons -- than to the architectural gem conjured up by Frau Merkel.

No one doubts that the EU's rulebook, which was first drafted half a century ago for six members, needs to be updated for a club that now boasts 27 states with almost 500 million people. But the changes mooted by EU leaders in 2004, such as trimming the size of the European Commission, curbing national vetoes over decision-making, creating the posts of president and foreign minister and merging all previous treaties into one, have been rejected by voters in two of the EU's six founding states. The text needs to be approved by all its members.

So what to do? There are essentially two schools of thought. The 18 nations that have ratified the treaty and are due to meet Friday in Madrid to seek a way out of the impasse would like to see the constitution agreed on in its present form as soon as possible. The blueprint's backers, however, are less clear about how they intend to overcome French and Dutch objections as well as others that may follow.

The original plan had been to wait for the Dutch and French to elect new leaders and then put the text to voters again in the hope that the second time around they would answer the same question the "right" way. This approach worked in Denmark and Ireland after previous treaties were voted down, but the EU's democratic credentials took a crippling blow in the process. Europe's leaders are unlikely to do the same again, especially as polls show that even more French and Dutch voters would rebuff the constitution now than two years ago.

Segolene Royal, the French Socialist candidate for president, has pledged to put a new treaty to a referendum if elected in May. This is commendably democratic, if you believe that people rather than elected politicians are better at making complex choices. But Royal's treaty is not the same one Blair has in mind, let alone her rival, Nicolas Sarkozy. Renegotiating the text, the fruit of four years of painful compromises, would lead to the mother of all battles between France, which views the constitution as an Anglo-Saxon free-market manifesto, and Britain, which would like to see a more economically liberal blueprint.

The second option is to draft a "mini-treaty" that scraps all mention of the word "constitution," deletes the preamble's motherhood-and-apple-pie statement of values and opts for institutional tinkering rather than political grandstanding. The beauty of such a "constitution-lite," favored by Sarkozy and Britain's eternal prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown, is that it wouldn't require any referendums. Deciding which parts of the 200-page charter should stay and which should go, however, would lead to an equally acrimonious bust-up.

There is another, slightly less conventional, alternative that would avoid exacerbating tensions among EU leaders, years of navel-gazing and accusations that the European Union does not listen to its people: Make do with the present treaty. The current rulebook, agreed to at Nice in 2000, is a pretty rotten document, but it has not led to the paralysis many predicted when it was adopted. Since the treaty was passed, the euro has been successfully introduced, 12 new countries have joined, membership talks with Turkey have begun, the next seven-year budget has been agreed on and EU troops, police and customs officials have been dispatched to Lebanon, Bosnia, Indonesia, Congo, Macedonia, Transdnestr, the Gaza Strip and Macedonia. If this is paralysis, long may it last.

Some urgent institutional changes, such as creating the post of foreign minister and opening up meetings of EU ministers to the public, could be made without any treaty changes. Others could be tacked on to the accession treaties of future states joining the EU, such as Croatia.

Granted, this solution isn't grand. "We have to find Europe's soul," Merkel said in her speech. But here's a thought: Maybe EU leaders can devote as much time to boosting growth and finding jobs for the bloc's 17 million unemployed as they do to finding its "inner self" and answers to interminable institutional woes.

Gareth Harding is editor of thiseurope.com. This comment was published in The Wall Street Journal.