The pornography of politicians
Nov. 4, 2002 | More from Don Murray
A cadaverous old man, who was once the president of France, has a dream. Fittingly, it is a dream without flesh; he calls it a "skeleton." He is the grandly named Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and he is the president of the Convention on the Future of Europe. This is a collection of 105 people, representatives of governments and parliaments from 25 European countries, those from the 15 that already make up the European Union and from the 10 candidates to join in 2004. Their task is to rethink the institutions that form the union.
Giscard has unveiled his skeleton of a future union. It would have a different name: United Europe or the United States of Europe are his preferences. Citizens would have dual nationality - a national and a European one. Giscard would like these Europeans with two passports to elect one president. He would also like to see one foreign minister for the great union of 440 million people. And finally he foresees a European Congress, made up of members of the European and of national parliaments. All this in the name of "liberty, solidarity and justice."
The skeleton is only the start. By next spring Giscard and the "conventionnels" (a French word for the members of the Convention that recalls the turbulent days and debates of the French Convention after the revolution of 1789) are charged with putting flesh on the bones - a constitution for Europe. It promises to be a tough task.
Giscard's skeleton is already facing an onslaught of bad metaphors. "There isn't a cat's chance in hell of the name of the European Union being changed." This from an anonymous mandarin of the British Foreign Office. "This is the skeleton of a diplodocus, with an extremely small federalist brain and a huge intergovernmental body." That from a French member of the European parliament.
As befits a representative of a smaller country, Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European parliament modestly avoided all metaphors to state his view: "This translates into nothing less than a constitution for a federal European Union state. There will be opposition from those who think there is too little democracy in this and opposition from those who, like me, say this is the creation of a state and not co-operation among states."
The German foreign minister is unhappy: he wants an avowedly federal Europe. The British government is scarcely pleased: it wants no more European political integration. The small European states are worried: they see the skeleton as a power grab to reinforce the dominance of the large states in Europe. Only Canadians might smile in this fog of federal rhetoric. At least we know what it's all about. We've already been there, only we called it Meech Lake, and then Charlottetown.
There's something about these debates about dividing power federally that stirs the hormones in a certain class of citizens. It could be called the pornography of politicians. Even the normal logrolling in such a supranational institution degenerates into spectacular and unseemly rows. One erupted just as Giscard was showing off his bones.
This battle pitted the president of France, Jacques Chirac, against the prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair. The subject seemed innocuous enough: agricultural subsidies. Yet Chirac stormed out of his tête-à-tête with Blair. He said that he had never been spoken to in such a manner before. The prime minister was "mal élevé." Chirac summarily cancelled the annual British-French mini-summit scheduled for December.
This quickly became front-page news in Britain. Journalists and editorial writers scurried to their French-English dictionaries. Was Chirac saying that Blair was badly brought up or rude, or both? Ah, the subtleties of French insults. Interestingly, the row was barely mentioned in the French press until the French noticed the Brits were getting very excited about this. Perhaps presidential tantrums fail to excite a people made blasé by so many.
The reason for the French serenity and the British fury was that Chirac had outmanoeuvred Blair masterfully and on a major question. For, in the European Union, agricultural subsidies are not innocuous; they account for almost half the Union's budget. And France benefits enormously. But with 10 new countries, many of them with large and backward agricultural sectors, knocking at the door, there was a growing clamour, led by Britain, to reform the system - in other words, to reduce the largesse handed to French farmers.
So Chirac turned to Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor. Germany has led the push to expand the union. Chirac said to him that France would not veto expansion if Germany would agree to protect in fact, to increase the subsidy system for the next 10 years. Schroeder agreed. Blair exploded. He told Chirac that Europe (read France) would look hypocritical when talking to third-world countries about agricultural development and open markets after this deal. That's when Chirac told Blair he was "mal élevé."
But Blair wasn't through. Within days there were accounts in the British press of his views of other European leaders. Schroeder, the man who double-crossed him on the agricultural subsidies, is considered by Blair to be vacuous, weak and "a bit of an airhead." Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy and the man who after September 11 said Islam was an inferior religion, is a loose cannon, an unstable ally. As for Chirac, Blair has described him as "a latter-day Margaret Thatcher, a tempestuous character."
These, remember, are the leaders of the four biggest countries in Europe. And sometime next year the cadaverous Giscard will place the outline of a new constitution for the continent in front of them. To all intents and purposes, the future of 440 million people will be in the hands of a tempestuous latter-day Thatcher, an airhead, a loose cannon, and a badly brought-up British boy.