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June 9, 2005

One on one: Alberta Sbragia on proposed EU constitution

In just the last two weeks, citizens in France and the Netherlands voted down a referendum for a European Union constitution and Great Britain’s foreign secretary wants to postpone that country’s vote. Expect more twists and turns as political leaders decide how to deal with these setbacks, according to Alberta Sbragia, director of Pitt’s Center for Western European Studies and the University’s European Union Center.

“Even without the constitution, the EU will move ahead,” Sbragia noted. EU countries still have the Treaty of Nice that was agreed upon by EU leaders in 2000 and frames the institutional arrangements that govern the new, enlarged EU. “There has to be time for debate,” Sbragia said. “The EU represents the first time in history that countries voluntarily integrated in a democratic way.”

The EU comprises 25 countries in what used to be known as Western and Eastern Europe. The European Parliament backs the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU in 2007. Beyond that, enlargement of the EU is “very uncertain,” according to Sbragia.

Sbragia, a professor of political science, focuses her research on EU politics and comparative study between the EU system and the United States. Her latest published scholarship on EU issues includes contributions to the book “Democracy and Federalism in the European Union and the United States: Exploring Post-National Governance,” published this year. She currently is working on a book that will look at regional integration in North America, Latin America and Asia as well as the EU.

University Times reporter Mary Ann Thomas talked with Sbragia last week about what’s happening with the proposed EU constitution and the EU itself.

University Times: How has the European Union been evolving?

Sbragia: One of the themes of my work has been to try to compare the history of the European Union with the American federal system and to think about ways in which the two can fruitfully be compared, because they are different. One of the ways in which they are similar is that both systems disperse power much more than traditional parliamentary systems do.

In the EU, power is dispersed among institutions that represent the member states and among institutions that are considered supra national institutions (institutions that were set up to push integration forward) and those would include the European Commission (the only EU body that can propose new laws), the European Parliament that has gotten more and more power over time in the making of laws and the European Court of Justice, which is roughly the equivalent of the American Supreme Court.

UT: Can you give some perspective on the proposed EU constitution and governing bodies?

Sbragia: It’s important to understand that two-thirds of the constitution actually was a consolidation of treaties that have already been implemented. They’ve been approved. What the constitution added to those basic treaties was provisions that would have given the EU more power in external relations. It would have also made decision-making more efficient by increasing the range of issues in which majority voting would have taken place.

The whole system has been very complicated. Let me just say that acceptance of an EU constitution was a way to simplify the decision-making process affecting a range of issues including economic policy and internal security.

Provisions in the proposed constitution also sought to appoint certain officials who would give the EU more of a recognizable position in international politics. The constitution said that a person would be appointed as the European Union foreign minister. And in addition, the European Union council (a group of prime ministers that come together every three or six months) was going to appoint a president of that group who would also represent the EU externally.

Given the problems with the constitution at this point, it’s unclear how the European Union council will choose to strengthen the EU’s external representation.

UT: Are voters for the EU constitution, particularly in France and the Netherlands, afraid of losing their autonomy? What about their labor markets and global trade issues that are changing so rapidly? What other issues are they concerned about?

Sbragia: One of the issues that is an important backdrop to the whole EU constitution is that the big economies in Europe — except for the British economy, which is doing well — such as Italy, France and Germany, have very slow rates of economic growth. Anytime there are slow rates of economic growth over a long period of time, and high rates of unemployment, there’s going to be a very upset citizenry.

What’s beginning to happen is that the single market that was created in 1986 to unify the market economies of Europe is beginning to bite. The prime ministers of European countries decided to set up a single market that would liberalize each of the national markets. Setting up a single market increases competition among firms operating in the EU because it allows them to easily tap the markets of all EU countries.

For example, the European version of Southwest Airlines is one result of that decision to create a single market.

In addition, there are non-EU economic pressures: For example, Chinese textile exports have put Italy under extreme pressure. These economies have much to cope with in terms of globalization.

Some of the same issues are being raised in the United States, for example, by the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The fight over CAFTA has many of the same elements that you find in Europe. U.S. workers in the textile and sugar industries are generally opposed to free trade with Central America because they fear that Central American workers will produce at such a low cost that American workers will be impoverished.

UT: Although there’s still much research to be done on the outcome of the public referendums on the EU constitution, can you offer some initial analysis on why, say, the citizens of the Netherlands voted down the EU constitution?

Sbragia: One of the interesting things about the Netherlands is that public opinion polls show that the Dutch are very much pro-European integration and yet they voted against the constitution.

In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, the candidate who was running on an anti-immigration ticket for prime minister, was assassinated. Then Theo Van Gogh, who made a film on how Islamic women were being maltreated, was killed. The Netherlands went through complete soul searching because their model of immigration had been to allow multi-culturalism to an extreme, but the Dutch are substantially changing their model of how to integrate immigrants into Dutch society.

So their vote against the constitution, I think, was a vote saying ‘We have to slow down. We have to slow down immigration. We have to slow down everything until we can figure out what we, as a country, are doing and also whether we want to move forward with more integration.’

It’s really hard to read referendum results because from what we can tell from exit polls, people are not voting on the constitution, they are interpreting the constitution to mean certain things, which may or may not be relevant to the constitution. The constitution does not affect how they are going to handle immigration in terms of the people already in the Netherlands. That’s their decision. Every country has the power to decide whether they want to have assimilation or multi-culturalism.

UT: The French, who voted against the EU constitution, seem very concerned about labor markets. What are some of their concerns and how do those concerns play out in the EU?

Sbragia: The French traditionally have been more pro-protectionism than, say, the British. One of the reasons why the European community was created in the first place was to facilitate trade, to diminish protectionism. But protectionism can be very attractive. It helps certain people; the unemployed might find work. But those who are currently employed might lose their work. There are winners and losers.

We know, at least what we can tell from the exit polls, that the one occupational group in France — the majority of highly educated workers — voted in favor of the constitution. They are going to do well in an economy that is more open. When you have more trade and economic liberalization, typically your lower-skilled workers are going to be hurt.

Now, countries can choose policies to try to soften the blow for those who lose work. But to do that you need enough tax revenue to spend and when you have low rates of economic growth, one of the things economists are saying they should do is to lower taxes to make the economy grow. But if you lower taxes, you’re going to have less money for social welfare spending.

So this was a very bad time to put up anything for ratification. And we know from opinion polls, often mass electorates do not have a very clear understanding of economic policy. They look and say ‘I don’t feel very secure in my job’ or ‘My brother-in-law doesn’t have a job.’

UT: Is there a disconnect between the public’s understanding of the institutional structures of the EU and the proposed constitution?

Sbragia: One important issue is political scapegoating. For example, a minister may very well vote for a law in Brussels, but then go home and tell the constituents, ‘Well, Brussels is forcing us to do it.’ Many Europeans don’t realize that their own ministers pass EU laws. Because when these ministers go back to their own countries, they’ll say ‘Oh, we’re voting to liberalize X and I didn’t want to do it.’ This is scapegoating: They blame Brussels for things that they know they should be doing for the good of their economy, but they don’t want to accept the political responsibility because it’s unpopular. I think that has created a kind of atmosphere in which many people feel that their country is being forced to do things that it doesn’t want to do.

In Europe, there has been this common process in which the laws are decided at the EU level but somehow people think bureaucrats make these laws. Bureaucrats do not pass legislation in the EU. They are passed by the Council of Ministers, which is made up of elected leaders from national governments.

UT: What is the biggest challenge for the EU in the years ahead?

Sbragia: There hasn’t been anything like European integration in history where you have democracies voluntarily integrating themselves and transcending the nation state. It’s a historical novelty.

We’ve had integration before, but it was caused by wars and kings and empires. If you want to continue the EU process over the next 50 years, my argument would be that you have to convince the voters in individual countries.

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