A sign of hope for Europe's future

The crisis should have warned Europe's leaders they cannot take the EU and its voters for granted
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To hear some of the comment coming out of Brussels yesterday you would think that the decision by Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, to withdraw the nomination of his commissioners in the face of opposition in the European Parliament was some kind of cataclysm for Europe, equivalent to Hitler marching into Czechoslovakia or Moscow crushing the Hungarian uprising.

What nonsense. What we have here is a classic political upset brought about by a poor reading of the situation by Barroso and a bad appointment of one commissioner, Rocco Buttiglione. Unless he makes a complete hash of it next time - which he shouldn't, as a former Portuguese Prime Minister used to parliamentary politics - there is no reason why Buttiglione can't come back with a revised distribution of portfolios for his commissioners, or a replacement for Buttiglione, and get it through with honour satisfied all round.

Of course it marks a victory for the Parliament in its supervision of the executive. And of course it is a humiliation not just for Buttiglione but for his political masters, and in particular the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. But it's not irretrievable, while out there among an increasingly disabused public it looks less of a cataclysm than just one more example of an institution that cannot get its act together. If anything, the ordinary citizen will probably feel it is a good thing to see the executive humbled and Brussels provide an air of genuine drama.

Which is the point that should matter to the leaders of the European Union, and the one which they seem almost wilfully to be refusing to face as they prepare to sign the new European Constitution in Rome today. The European project has lost its democratic legitimacy where it matters most, among its own citizens. In opinion poll after opinion poll, in new entrant countries as in old ones, the same message comes through. The majority of voters do not believe that the Union is working to their benefit.

The importance of the European Constitution was that it was going to change this mood by rallying an enlarged community around a new treaty. The point of Barroso was that he would restore the reputation of the administration of the Union, sunk to abysmally low levels during the tenure of Romano Prodi, by producing a new figure determined to restore economic momentum and institutional reform to the community.

Both have failed in their task. Barroso failed because he underestimated the problem and because, having gained the freedom to shuffle the commissioners proposed by their national governments, he proceeded to make a series of misjudgements. Buttiglione was the wrong man for the job of justice commissioner, but then so was the appointment of Neelie Kroes to be competition commissioner when she was so deeply entangled with the companies she would be overseeing. And arguably Peter Mandelson is quite the wrong man for the job of trade commissioner, a role requiring great patience, discreet negotiating skills and rock-solid principles. Rearranging the chairs now could be the opportunity to do no end of good.

But then Barroso is hampered by a system in which the member governments not only determine who is to be their national commissioner but then limits the European Parliament to accepting the Commission in its totality or rejecting them all, just as it has to do in considering the Budget.

This should have been precisely the kind of issue tackled in the new constitution, but it does nothing to change a system of parliamentary supervision which everyone accepts as ridiculous. Nor does it do much to create a proper balance between the three pinnacles of European power - the nation states as represented in the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, and the executive as represented by the Commission.

Instead it proposes a treaty of high-flown phrases, some modest procedural reforms and some necessary but ponderous adjustments to voting weights to take into accounts an enlarged membership. It's neither as federalist as its conservative critics would claim or quite so harmless as some of its supporters would protest. But then nor is it anything that a serious politician should take to the voter as a means of rallying the multitude around the European flag. If the treaty gets through the dozen or more referendums, it will only happen for want of an alternative, not anything positive.

In the manner of politics, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and the rest of them will trudge on to their various referendums without enthusiasm, hoping to scare their electorates into saying yes by raising the alternative of complete collapse. But that, in a sense, is exactly what Barroso tried in his dealings with the European Parliament, backed by governments, such as that of Tony Blair, who have little time for European democracy when it cuts across their interests or their appointees.

This week's crisis should have warned Europe's leaders that they cannot just continue taking the Union's institutions or its voters for granted. They've got to get out and listen to them if they're not to be caught, as the Commission was, by an opposition that is prepared to vote them down.

But the other great lesson of this week may well prove more beneficent in the long term. The European Parliament is not the most perfect or representative of institutions. But we are seeing in its manoeuvrings the beginnings of cross-national parties and Europe-wide politics that could yet hold something encouraging for those of us who believe Europe's future is ours.