Europe Comes Of Age

Alas, to be born into the world without friends. That seems to be the fate of the draft constitution of the new European Union, to be presented at the summit in Thessaloniki on Friday. To a contemptuous Romano Prodi, the head of the European Commission who dreamed of building a stronger "federal" union, the document "lacks vision and ambition." By contrast, British Tories and tabloids are positively twitching with Europhobia. The proposed constitution will "sweep away 1,000 years of history," proclaims the Sun.

Don't be fooled. Prodi and his federalists are right. The Convention on the Future of Europe has deliberated--and delivered a mouse. When they began their work 18 months ago, Prodi and other Euro-insiders were convinced that they would dominate. They intended to exploit the bold rhetoric of constitutionalism to craft an idealistic document that centralized ever more power and democratic control in Brussels. There was heady talk of a new name, "United Europe." There were proposals for introducing majority voting on sensitive issues of foreign and defense policy. Brussels's influence would be extended over national fiscal and social policies. National vetoes would be eliminated. A new EU president would be directly elected, by and for the people. Farewell, faceless Eurocracy. Welcome, democracy.

Little of this has come to pass. The convention's canny chieftain, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, knows where real power in the EU lies. Any radical draft would be picked apart by national governments when they begin reviewing the document this autumn. To encourage them to accept his draft intact, Giscard faced down the federalists and struck backroom deals with the member states. Case in point: last week's wrangling over whether to allow EU foreign policy to be determined via qualified majority voting. Bottom line? It won't be.

Most of the reforms that remain are simply good public management. With enlargement and a union of 25 member states, many of them tiny, it was high time to replace the revolving six-month council presidency, responsible for organizing the overall agenda. Thus there will be a new EU president, appointed by the states for a five-year term. Both "old" and "new" Europeans agree that crises like Iraq require greater integration. Thus the two top EU foreign-policy posts--currently held by Javier Solana and Chris Patten--will be consolidated into the new position of EU foreign minister. For most European countries the management of asylum, crime and defense procurement justifies a minimum set of intergovernmental standards. Thus a smattering of consensual policies will be newly governed by qualified majority voting and European Parliament oversight.

Otherwise, the new constitution merely consolidates current practice--a fact that should be welcomed rather than scorned. For too long, the debate over union has been divided between radical federalists who would move forward toward a centralized Europe and excessively cautious skeptics who would roll it back. What has emerged from the constitutional convention is a Europe in equilibrium. Henceforth, policies of greatest concern to citizens--social welfare, taxation, pensions, health care, education, culture, infrastructure--will remain essentially national and local. Those of less interest--trade, banking, industrial standardization, technical harmonization--will be European. In the middle, a few policies--immigration, policing and defense--will be shared. This is a heartening outcome. In coming to terms with its strengths as well as its limitations, the European Union has at long last entered its maturity.