Leading article: A year for reflection, but not for inaction

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The Independent Online

If 9 May is designated Europe Day, 29 May might justifiably become known as its opposite. This is the date on which, one year ago, France voted not to accept the European Union's constitutional treaty. The Netherlands "No" vote the following week halted the treaty in its tracks. In some countries, where only parliamentary approval was required, ratification has continued. But Britain called off plans for a referendum and with that the ambitious project of a constitution for Europe was effectively dead.

Since then the European Union has been in what it has styled, rather elegantly in the circumstances, a "period of reflection". Looking back, we might have wished that some of this reflection had predated the votes. There was an argument for co-ordinating the ratification process so that it was uniform across the EU or so that, where referendums were held, they took place on the same day. Somehow, though, it had seemed inconceivable that two of the founding members of the European Union would blackball the treaty.

This weekend, EU foreign ministers again failed to make any headway on structural reform. The "period of reflection" was extended for another 12 months. This time next year, the outcome of elections in the Netherlands and France should be clear and, with it, the future direction of these countries in relation to Europe. In a union of 25 countries, it may be invidious for so much to hang on the results of elections in two countries, but this is the reality. France and the Netherlands by themselves will not determine the future of the European Union, but the prospects for reform cannot sensibly be judged until they have decided on the complexion of their next administrations.

There is nonetheless much that can and should be done during the extended period of reflection. Time will show, for instance, whether the present structures can be adapted to the 25 - soon to be 27 - members or whether they are so clumsy that more radical change is required. In some ways such a comprehensive treaty may have been ahead of its time. Until the present structure is demonstrated to be broken, few have a convincing incentive to fix it. If and when it is shown not to work, support for reform should grow.

One area where the need for structural reform is more obvious than others is foreign policy. In theory, too, addressing this should be simpler than reorganising the voting system or the Commission portfolios because there are fewer entrenched interests here, at least at EU level. The EU needs to have one individual to co-ordinate foreign relations and represent the European Union abroad. The concept of a European diplomatic service, by whatever name, should also be embraced, however much members of the individual national diplomatic services might dislike it.

Institutions, of course, are no substitute for policy, but they can facilitate its making and implementation. At present, the European Union finds it difficult to do either, even as an enhanced EU presence on the international stage is something many countries outside Europe view in a positive light.

One of the most regrettable aspects of the "No" votes in France and the Netherlands is that relatively uncontroversial measures, such as the proposals for a foreign policy structure, were lost. And it is hard to resurrect them, because the constitution as a whole was voted down. This is one reason why any revised treaty should be renamed, however trivial this may seem. The term "constitution" scared some people and persuaded others that the document was more federalist than it was. A less ambitious name for a less wordy document, or perhaps several documents, would not be the worst product of 12 months' reflection.