Leading article: Mr Mandelson is correct


Peter Mandelson has created a stir by mooting a revival of the European Union constitution that was rejected in France and the Netherlands last year. The European Trade Commissioner suggested in a speech in Bucharest yesterday that Europe's leaders will inevitably need to give up more sovereignty and more rights - as specified by the constitution - if the European project is to survive. This intervention has prompted a Bateman cartoon-style response from Eurosceptics. The reaction of the Conservative MEP, Chris Heaton-Harris, sums it up. "What part of 'no' does Peter Mandelson not understand?" he demanded, referring to the Dutch and French rejection. "Most people in Britain want the EU to be doing less, not more."

But Mr Mandelson is right. The EU needs this constitution because of enlargement. The present institutional arrangements were designed to cope with an original EU club of six members. The addition of 10 new members in 2004 demands a shift to more majority voting. Yet because the constitution did not come into effect, reform is in limbo. The problem will only grow more acute when Romania and Bulgaria join next year. And if Turkey and the Balkan states eventually become members too, the Union will rapidly become inoperable. Reform is the only solution.

The constitution would have also incorporated and extended the free market principles of earlier EU treaties. Does anyone seriously doubt, given the present situation of France and Germany, that such economic liberalisation is urgently required? If anything, the need is even greater than it was a year ago.

Britain's EU commissioner was also right to argue yesterday that national governments did a poor job of "selling" the benefits of the constitution to their electorates. The constitution was hardly the most elegant document ever produced, but Europe's leaders did an abysmal job of outlining the advantages it would bring. The predictable result was that a majority in France and the Netherlands voted out of fear for the future, rather than optimism about what the EU could achieve in the new century.

The bitter irony is that the constitution was not about the European Union "doing more", as Mr Heaton-Harris now claims. If anything it was the opposite. The primary purpose was freeing up the people of the continent to fulfil their potential and facilitating economic growth. Its liberalising agenda was, in fact, what prompted so many French voters on the left to reject it.

Yet the problems the constitution was designed to remedy have not disappeared. And Mr Mandelson is absolutely right to argue that, for the long-term health of the European Union, it must be resurrected.

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