By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 26/03/07):
Lots of us have a question or an issue that has bothered us for ages.
Mine involves dead birds. Where do they all go? Why aren’t the trees surrounded by the corpses of our feathered friends once their time is up? And wouldn’t you think that from time to time one would read about people suffering a sharp blow to the head after a crow or something similar had suffered a mid-flight coronary?
Yet, it does not appear to happen. Why not? Has evolution managed to make fallen birds instantly biodegradable? In November, to my great relief, the Last Word page of New Scientist, a section in which readers offer esoteric inquiries and professors write in to resolve them, featured this curiosity. Alas, it remains unanswered.
Equally mysterious is why the European Union is so pleased with itself. The fiftieth anniversary bash held in Germany at the weekend has been an odious spectacle. It was a politically correct modern version of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. That one of the exhibits on display was a collection of cakes from the 27 member states was accidentally appropriate, since this is an organisation sharing Marie Antoinette’s attitude towards its “citizens”. It was bizarre to witness political leaders acting as if they were attending a celebrity birthday party.
Though the occasion symbolised a collective detachment from reality, it contained a message within the pious “Declaration of Berlin” that was formally launched yesterday. The heirs to Thomas Jefferson will have no reason to fear the competition from this.
The text is turgid and it is contains near-comic double-talk. It starts with the statement that “Europe was for centuries an Idea” (and there were those of us who thought that it was a geographical landmass). It moves on swiftly to “European unity has enabled us to live in peace and prosperity” (Germany has stopped invading France) and “we have to thank the love of freedom of the people of Central and Eastern Europe that Europe’s unnatural divisions are today finally overcome” (sorry that it took 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to let you in, but never mind).
It detours into “only together can we preserve our European social model in the future” (we would rather put up with unemployment than do anything that smacked of the American economy). It pledges that “the European Union will continue to live in the future on the basis of its openness” (unless you happen to be Turkey, in which case the door will be superglued closed).
The most significant lines in this pompous proclamation come as it concludes. They are: “We must continue to renew and update the political shape of Europe. That is why, 50 years after the signing of the Treaties of Rome, we are today united in the goal of achieving a renewed common foundation for the European Union before the elections to the European Parliament in 2009.
Because we know: Europe is our common future.”
These are words that should fill Gordon Brown in particular with dread (and not just because that last sentence started with “because”, which is awful grammar). For the two years since the electors of France and the Netherlands voted down the EU Constitution, Europe has been the dead bird of British politics — out there but undetected. Which is exactly where any sane British Prime Minister should want it to stay. There will now be a real struggle over whether the EU should proceed with a “slimmed-down constitution”, as Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, wants, or plump instead for a “mini-treaty”. If this argument goes the wrong way, a Brown Government would soon find itself in deep trouble.
A slimmed-down constitution and a mini-treaty might sound like similar items. They are not. The difference is akin to the distinction between a person losing weight and losing height. A smaller constitution retains the ambitions of a constitution but it has been subjected to more intensive editing. It remains an attempt to increase the authority of the EU over the nations within it. A mini-treaty is not as sweeping. It would seek to address internal anomalies — ending the rotating six-month presidencies, reforming voting weights which are allegedly too charitable to Poland and replacing the present EU “High Representative” on international affairs with a new “Foreign Minister”.
I am not convinced that even a mini-treaty is essential. The rotating presidency may be inefficient, but it embodies the principle that EU members are equal in status irrespective of the size of their populations. After all that Poland has been through in the past five centuries, its people either carved up or clamped down, a modest degree of overrepresentation in its EU voting weight does not look so outrageous. As for creating an EU Foreign Minister, experience indicates that whoever this was would have to learn how to say “on the one hand, on the other” in umpteen different languages.
Despite this, I recognise that a mini-treaty is still preferable to a slimmed-down constitution and that its domestic impact would not be anything like so seismic. Any agreement that smacked of a constitution would have to be submitted to voters, and that would mean mayhem for ministers. There might be calls for a mini-treaty to be put to a ballot too, but this would not strike most people as a plausible suggestion. The Government could easily assert that Parliament should approve or not the mini-treaty.
What occurs depends heavily on the French presidential election. If Nicolas Sarkozy wins, then Mr Brown would have a crucial ally in this battle. If it is Segolãne Royal or François Bayrou, then Ms Merkel will be well set to make the running. The EU Constitution is not dead yet. It may become visible again far sooner than anyone anticipated.