Sincere Europeans should strive to make this treaty a reality

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The Italian hosts pulled out all the stops to launch the European Union's Constitutional Treaty in style. With a due sense of history, the ceremony was staged in the same splendid hall where the first Treaty of Rome was signed 47 years ago. Could anyone have conceived then that less than half a century later the Common Market would have become the European Union, the Iron Curtain would have fallen, the number of members would have risen to 25 - 12 of them bound by a common currency? By any measure these achievements have to be accounted a success.

The Italian hosts pulled out all the stops to launch the European Union's Constitutional Treaty in style. With a due sense of history, the ceremony was staged in the same splendid hall where the first Treaty of Rome was signed 47 years ago. Could anyone have conceived then that less than half a century later the Common Market would have become the European Union, the Iron Curtain would have fallen, the number of members would have risen to 25 - 12 of them bound by a common currency? By any measure these achievements have to be accounted a success.

Yesterday's lavish ceremony, however, suffered from a strange hollowness at its heart. Nominations for the new Commission, which was supposed to have been confirmed by the European Parliament last week, were withdrawn at the 11th hour. The incoming President, Jose Manuel Barroso, was forced back to the drawing board, after it became clear that the Parliament's objections to the Italian nominee for justice commissioner could scupper the whole executive. The least that will now happen is that the names will be reshuffled; some nominees may be replaced. A new Commission will be in place at best two weeks late.

Compounding the emptiness of yesterday's ceremony were doubts about whether the treaty - negotiated amid such contention - would ever come into force. It requires ratification by all 25 members, nine of which, Britain included, are committed to holding referendums. With popular enthusiasm for the European Union seemingly in decline across the continent, a serious question mark hangs over the new powers, structures and voting procedures that the treaty enshrines. If just one country rejects the treaty, the whole European project will once again be in flux.

Neither the late confirmation of a new Commission nor failure to confirm the new treaty would necessarily be fatal. If a new Commission is formed and confirmed within the month, the immediate crisis will have been defused. There is even a sense in which the Parliament's minor rebellion will have been salutary. If MEPs can continue to flex their muscles, there is a chance that the EU's democratic deficit will not yawn so wide in future. Nor would failure to ratify the constitution automatically consign the EU to oblivion. Institutions might simply be frozen in their present, clumsy state, or a multi-speed union might evolve.

Either eventuality, however, would signify a lamentably wasted opportunity. Silvio Berlusconi's credentials may be suspect in many departments, but his oratory yesterday was right on target. "Never in history," he said, "have we seen an example of nations voluntarily deciding to exercise their sovereign powers jointly in the exclusive interests of their peoples, thus overcoming age-old impulses of rivalry and distrust." That must be the hope. The coming months will show whether the pomp and circumstance in Rome will turn out to be the symbolic high point of a process that is now set for decline or whether, like the first Treaty of Rome, it will usher in a qualitatively new stage in Europe's history. All sincere Europeans must work for the second.

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