19 April, 2004: European Onion

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So, we are to have a referendum on the EU Constitution. This is, I think, a good moment to inflict on my half-dozen readers my views on this seminal document.

For those who haven't looked at the thing, it's about 70,000 words long (approximately twice the length of Animal Farm, and ten times the length of the United States constitution, to pick two random examples); on A4 paper, it weighs in at 265 pages, though that is only achieved by halving the line spacing after the first 46 pages. It contains such gems of the writer's art as,

The Member States shall facilitate the achievement of the Union's tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives set out in the Constitution.


Rights recognised by this Charter for which provision is made in other Parts of the Constitution shall be exercised under the conditions and within the limits defined by these relevant Parts. Insofar as this Charter contains rights which correspond to rights guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the meaning and scope of those rights shall be the same as those laid down by the said Convention.

or the slightly baffling,

The Council of Ministers, on a proposal from the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Commission, shall adopt a European decision suspending application of an agreement and establishing the positions to be adopted on the Union's behalf in a body set up by an agreement, when that body is called upon to adopt acts having legal effects, with the exception of acts supplementing or amending the institutional framework of the agreement.

Now, readers of The Book of Heroic Failures will be familiar with even less comprehensible Ground Nuts Act, which contained the following clarifying provision:

In the Nuts (unground), other than ground nuts Order, the expression nuts shall have reference to such nuts, other than ground nuts, as would but for this amending Order not qualify as nuts (unground) (other than ground nuts) by reason of their being nuts (unground).

-- but this is not to say that new legislation need approach the same levels of obscurity. Some recent attempts are of admirable simplicity:

1. (1) Any person who knowingly causes a nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life.

and it's not clear why the Constitution shouldn't fall into this category.

(As an aside, the passing of the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act 1998, from which that last example is drawn, occasioned one of the best letters to the Times I can remember reading; it ran -- paraphrasing, as their archive is not on the web -- ``Am I seriously to understand that, had I caused a nuclear explosion prior to the passing of this Act, I would not have been breaking the law?'' This comes in just behind another relating to the innovation of `numeracy hours' in primary schools, which prompted a correspondent to inquire, ``My son's school has now instituted a Numeracy Hour which, according to the timetable, is to last 45 minutes. Is all hope now lost?'' -- to which the answer is, I think, `yes'. I can't bear to read the Times any more, but perhaps I should relax this rule in relation to the letters page....)

Now, the European Union has in its fifty-odd-year history been immensely successful and effective at fulfilling its basic purpose -- which is, roughly, to stop the French and the Germans from having another war. On this basis it gets my unqualified support. All the other stuff -- the legions of officials and attendant legions of enriching scams, the subsidies to agriculture, the inflexible monetary policy and the World's Biggest Constitution -- is just icing on the cake.

The European Union is also, of course, turning the European Union into a free-trade area (well, if you ignore the subsidies, anyway), which is a jolly good idea and probably helps it to implement its first aim -- though it's not really clear why all the apparatus of the Commission, Parliament and so forth is necessary for this. (As an aside, I would love somebody to explain to me why uniformity of regulation is necessary for free trade. Modern trade policy seems to assume that this is true, but nobody explains why; it's not at all obvious to me why, for instance, Australia needs to incorporate bonkers American IP policy into its local laws in order for there to be free trade between Australia and the United States.)

Anyway, if someone can convince me that an incomprehensible 70,000-word Constitution is necessary to keep Europe at peace and prosperous, I'll vote for the bloody thing. Otherwise, I'm against it until they can cut it down to a reasonable length. Two sides of A4 would be about right.

Update: Michael Howard has done a silly thing: he has pledged that, if the result of the referendum is a `no' vote, the Conservative Party will never sign up to any European Constitution. This means that people like me who think that this Constitution is bloody awful, but that a future attempt at a European Constitution (or Constitutional Treaty or whatever) could be an improvement over the status quo, might be discouraged from voting `no' in the upcoming referendum. Now, my view is very likely a minority one, but is Howard really saying that the Conservatives would oppose a hypothetical future treaty which restricted the power of the center and restored authority to the member states of the EU, simply because it would establish a new Constitution for the Union?

Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.