Nearly a dozen countries have ratified the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe with hardly a whisper of controversy; two electorates reject it and there is a storm of breast beating and rending of garments. Why? Why? Why did no one ask why so many countries – including Spain, which even held a referendum – accepted the treaty so quietly with such overwhelming majorities?
Conspicuously absent in the soul-searching that has followed the rejection of the constitution is discussion of the possibility that it may have been rejected by the voters on its merits. The Polish press seems convinced that the French voted no because of a fear of the &ldquoPolish plumber.” Other quarters believe that the no vote was born of ignorance – the same reason given for the Irish electorate's rejection of the Nice treaty. Then again it may have been meant as a slap in the face for Chirac, a reaction to the Bolkestein directive, a result of a general political malaise in both countries, an expression of insularity and xenophobia – anything, in fact, other than a considered, rational decision taken in the perceived best interests of the voters.
What the Constitution does is codify and present in one document the small incremental changes that have been adopted by the governments of the EU over the years. It would seem some voters, given the opportunity to consider the whole programme in one go, are not too keen.
The Constitution, if adopted, would prevent the European Union from following the kind of economic policies Roosevelt (reluctantly) used in the US to pull it out of depression in the 1930s and, especially, the early ’40s: in 1936, with a recovery under way, Roosevelt cut back the Works Progress Administration (public works) programme, causing unemployment to double. The following year he increased WPA spending and by 1940 he was speaking of permanent government intervention in the running of the economy. ‘Financial prudence’ is not always the sound, common-sense option it seems. There may be compelling reasons for a State to spend more than its GDP – for instance to stimulate an economy in depression.
Article III-184 (1) forbids member States from running excessive deficits. This article and the Protocol on the Excessive Debt Procedure, 10, article 1 explain what is meant by &ldquoexcessive”: 3%. In 1992 the USA had a deficit of 4.7 % of GDP. Similar attempts by US politicians to constitutionally enforce a &ldquobalanced budget” (which would have allowed no deficit at all) drew heavy criticism but there is hardly a flicker of interest in the European debate. This may well be – it almost certainly is – because the Protocol on the Excessive Debt Procedure is already EU law (frequently flouted, to be sure, but law nonetheless).
Little if any attempt is made to persuade voters that the governments of the EU should be constitutionally forbidden from pursuing certain economic policies – policies which, while they may not be suitable for every imaginable economic situation, have served well on occasion in the past.