London—Islington, a district just to the north of central London, is famous for two things. It was the home of Tony Blair and family until they moved to Downing Street in 1997. And it is the home of “the Islington person,” a stereotype devised by a journalist a few years ago to poke fun at Britons who dare to have money and not vote with their wallets. The caricature contains a grain of truth. These leafy squares and tasteful terraces, barely changed since 1850, harbour a disproportionate number of barristers, publishers, columnists, authors, and broadcasters, most of them garrulously liberal. You don’t have to be opinionated to live here, but it helps.
As the Iraq war loomed, conversation raged at the school gates of Islington and in the designer kitchens and organic pubs. When the spotlight switched to whether Blair had been entirely honest, the debate reached an even higher pitch. Meanwhile, another piece of international history was unfolding almost unnoticed. In July, the European Union got its first constitution. In the words of Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, the constitution is an unprecedented legal revolution. It’s especially unprecedented for Britain, which has somehow muddled through the centuries, and even enjoyed a stint as a superpower, with no written constitution. This document may be the Rubicon between a Europe of nation- states and a Europe that is essentially federal. The British, with their traditions of spiky independence, might be expected to have views on this, and the people of Islington more than most. Along the area’s main drag, Upper Street, there are about eighty places to eat and drink, including five branches of Starbucks, all bubbling and frothing with conversation. But your latte could go cold in every one of them before you overheard anybody discussing the future of Europe. “I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,” sang The Who in 1971. In 2003, Britain is not tipping its hat but blocking its ears.
Nobody I know has read the draft constitution, and few are more than dimly aware of its existence. In Britain, a constitution is something a person has—or a dog. “Biscuit’s been in the wars, poor old thing, but he does have a very strong constitution.” Constitutional is a noun, meaning a brisk walk, something that the British view with far more enthusiasm than putting their minds to the shape and scope of the European Union. The euro they can just about get their heads round; Britain is staying out for the moment, exercising its veto. The constitution is a separate issue, or tangle of issues, essentially setting out how Europe should be ruled and by whom and whether anyone can stop them.
This document will touch and, to some extent, govern the lives of 450 million people, as the Union expands from fifteen nations to twenty-five. It has deeper ramifications for the person in the street than the question of whether it was right or wrong to invade Iraq. But it does not catch the imagination in the same way. War is drama; this is its diametric opposite—bureaucratic tedium. “Europe as a political issue has always bored the public,” Simon Heffer, a right-wing English columnist, has written. “This has allowed politicians to get away with murder over the years in sacrificing aspects of our sovereignty to unelected foreigners.”
The original purpose of this constitution was to make the Union simpler and more democratic. So far, it seems to have failed miserably on each count. The text could be called various things, but not simple. It runs to 51,000 words—roughly twelve times the length of the U.S. Constitution—and most of them are long, grey, and abstract.
How many people does it take to draft a constitution? In Europe, 105. How long does it take? Seventeen months, and counting. The text—now in its second, not noticeably more readable draft—will be given to the national governments this month, to be ratified in May 2004 at the earliest. The process is agonizingly slow, yet also alarmingly fast.
Public apathy doesn’t bother the Blair government. Their representative at the discussions, Peter Hain, did his best to whip up further indifference by labelling the constitution “a tidying-up exercise.” The German foreign minister put it differently: “the most important treaty since the foundation of the European Economic Community [in 1958].” The German view was echoed by other nations; Britain was isolated. Hain, a rising star of Blair’s administration, was no more convincing than Selwyn Lloyd, the Conservative foreign secretary in 1958, who dismissed the EEC as “much ado about nothing.”
The British are torn about Europe. The lives we live are becoming more European by the day. We drink Belgian beer, and eat Italian bread and Greek dips. Our football league, once doggedly British, is overrun with men named Thierry and Ole-Gunnar. We take ludicrously cheap flights for weekends away in Bilbao and Prague. But then, we also enjoy Kenyan beans, Israeli herbs, St. Lucian bananas, and American cartoons, without wishing to amalgamate with those countries. If asked whether we wanted to share a political system with continental Europe, we would probably say no. Which is why our government has no plans to ask us.
Revolution is verbose, Trotsky said. In the dense verbiage of the constitution lurks a revolution of sorts. It proposes a Europe with a proper president, not the twice-yearly rotation we have had so far. It proposes a single foreign minister with a single foreign policy, which is hard to imagine in a year when a war waged by the U.S. and Britain, with backing from Spain and Italy, has been scorned by France and Germany. It sets out a charter of rights which, although mostly admirable, would have the effect of herding twenty-five nations down the path of social democracy and political correctness, committing them to “the social market economy” and to respecting the right, among many others, of children to “express their views freely.” It makes Europe a legal personality with “exclusive competence” over the signing of international agreements. It says that most major policy areas, from the environment to criminal justice, are “shared,” which turns out to mean that if the EU decides to legislate, the member states have to stand aside. It has dropped the word “federal” and the phrase “United States of Europe,” but it still urges “ever closer union.” It gives Europe a flag, an anthem (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy), and a slogan, as if it were a soft drink. The slogan is—don’t laugh—“United in Diversity.”
We clearly need a referendum. The question is whether Islington, never mind the rest of the U.K., will wake up in time to demand one.
This appeared in the October 2003 issue.