The European constitution remains an outdated solution to the wrong problem

Stressing red lines is an odd way to recommend an important change: "isn't it wonderful; it could have been worse"
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The Independent Online

The Government would like us to believe that it has had a triumph. If so, it is a strange one. When Messrs Blair and Straw tried to persuade us of the merits of the new EU constitution, their arguments were largely negative, stressing the successful defence of the so-called red lines. But even if the British Redcoats remained unbroken, this is an odd way to recommend an important change: "Isn't it wonderful; it could have been so much worse."

There is one fundamental objection to the new document. It is an outdated solution to the wrong problem. No one could sensibly claim that Europe did not need rules. The local Rotary Club has them, so why not the EU? With enlargement, new and clear procedures were necessary to ensure that Europe would run efficiently.

But this constitution has nothing to do with any of that; it and efficiency inhabit different planets. There is nothing in it that would end the decade-long scandal of the EU's own court of auditors being unable to sign its accounts because of fraud and large-scale financial evaporation. If the EU Commissioners had been the board of directors of a British public company, they would have been prosecuted and imprisoned years ago.

The trivial task of saving several billion euros of EU taxpayers' money was far too banal for Valery Giscard d'Estaing and his committee. Their prolonged pompous palavering had only one point: to draft a constitution for a new state. Giscard saw himself as uniting in one man the finest qualities of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton.

There are certain problems with this vision, even apart from its ludicrous self-puffery. In the first place, the framers of the American constitution could write. In the thicket of Giscard's ponderous prose, the least impressive sentence in the US constitution would shine like the Koh-I-Noor diamond.

Second, the Americans were able to be frank about their objectives. They were creating a legal framework for a state, a task which they proclaimed to all mankind. Giscard was not allowed to be so candid, for fear of frightening off many of the conscript citizens of his covert state. But his remit was indeed state-building. The EU already had a parliament, a civil service, a national anthem and a flag. Now, it is to acquire a President, a Foreign Minister, a diplomatic service and a defence capability. That is statehood.

It will also have a supreme court, with the duty of extending the EU state's scope. The American founding fathers also established a supreme court whose justices would be the custodians of a constitution which could not easily be amended. The courts would act as a restraint on the peoples' representatives.

A problem emerged almost immediately: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes": who will guard the guards? Over the centuries, instead of placing a strict construction on the Founding Fathers' words, many Supreme Court justices have become unelected legislators, using their powers to impose new laws, quite out of step with the spirit of the constitution.

That is what has happened in the Land of the Free. Yet if the US cannot trust its Supreme Court, how much less could we trust the judges of the European Court of Justice? The constitution gives the EU vague but extensive new powers over economic matters, social policy, criminal justice and defence. It would take 20 years before the judges informed us what all this meant, but we could be certain that the EU's institutions would be further strengthened, at Britain's expense.

Every time we have signed up to a European treaty, we have found ourselves committed to far more than we had expected. This would be no exception. Mr Blair's defences would prove thin red lines indeed when enfiladed from all sides by the forces of the EU Court of Justice.

This document is the last attempt by the French to create a Europe which could be run as a Franco-zone. Jacques Chirac's recent attempts at French self-assertion on smaller matters are indicative of the spirit in which the French approach the whole affair. Many other European governments were keen to have a reference to Christianity in the constitution's preamble; so was the Pope. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, tried to make the case; the Irish were holding the Presidency. M. Chirac would not have it. He told the Irish that it ran contrary to the secularism of the French revolutionary tradition. So Christianity was guillotined.

As was Chris Patten. He was by no means certain that he wanted to be the President of the Commission. But he was extensively lobbied. On Wednesday, Angela Merkel of the German CDU phoned Michael Howard to ask him to persuade Mr Patten to let his name go forward. Mr Howard agreed, although it might not have been in his interests to have a plausible and attractive Tory Europhile in such a prominent position. But at 11.30 on Wednesday evening, after a telephone conversation with Mr Howard, Mr Patten did agree to run.

If there had been a vote among the heads of government, he would have won. That is why there was no vote. M. Chirac preferred a veto. Officially, he objected to Chris Patten on the grounds that Britain is not in the single currency (that is not Mr Patten's fault). But M. Chirac was unhappy at the thought of a formidable Brit who did not speak excellent French.

In this, M. Chirac may have undermined his own interest. There is no reason to suppose that Mr Patten would have been hostile to the French federalist version of Europe. Equally, Chris Patten may not be a fluent Francophone: he is certainly a Francophile. Even if he does not speak good French, he has eaten good French food for many years.

That was not enough for the French president. Whenever he faces a choice between sensible EU decision-making and French pique, he always chooses the latter. By Friday evening, Chris Patten had withdrawn his candidacy, switched off his mobile phone and gone to the cinema. The EU will take a lot longer to find a less good President.

If Tony Blair had been wise, he would have accompanied Mr Patten to the cinema, leaving behind a veto. For years, the intelligence services have been telling Mr Blair that M. Chirac dislikes him and is invariably rude about him in private.

Instead of taking this as a compliment from a man who is desperate to remain President of France in order to avoid criminal charges, Mr Blair endlessly exposes himself to further snubs. This is not only undignified: it is pointless.

The new Europe did not need a monument to M. Chirac's fantasies and Giscard's vanity. It needed a loose regulatory framework for the single market. Within that broad structure there would be nothing to prevent individual states from negotiating bilateral or multilateral arrangements to pool sovereignty.

Instead, we have an attempt at coercion that is bound to founder on the rocks of popular will. One question remains. Why did Tony Blair waste so much time on a project which was bound to fail?