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European Union – the end or no end in sight?

Jonathan Bensky, Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs, United States Mission to the European Union, talks about the European Union after the defeat of the constitution

By Theda Braddock

This summer political discussions have revolved around the European Union’s Constitution (or lack thereof).  The process of reaching a consensus among 25 countries has been no small task and now that it has failed, the question begging to be asked is, what now?

            A recent visit organized by the local French and American Chamber of Commerce (FACC) from a representative at the United States Mission to the European Union served to ease qualms.   Jonathan Bensky, a Senior Commercial Officer, gave a presentation during which he emphasized his beliefs that the recent setbacks in the constitution’s progress do not spell out the end.

            Mr. Bensky, who served in the US Foreign Service in a variety of locations, has spent the last several years in Brussels observing the goings on of the EU.  “The end is not in sight…Issues in the EU never die,” he stressed repeatedly to a small audience of business leaders with ties to the European community.  “All [the changes in the constitution] will be implemented one way or another.” 

            For those who aren’t up to date, the EU has been working for years now on creating a binding constitution, which will help clarify some lingering issues.  The latest version of the constitution was drafted last year and has been agreed upon by thirteen countries.  In May, France, one of the founding members of the EU, voted against the constitution, by referendum.  Shortly after, the Netherlands followed suit.

            The constitution, which is an amalgamation of previous existing treaties, would have primarily served to standardize practices that have been in place for a number of years.  Among these changes- a more proportional voting system would have been established, the Charter of Rights would have gained legal standing, council meetings would have become public and a Union Minister of Foreign Affairs position would have been created (though with very little authority).  Perhaps most importantly would have been the creation of a longer term for the chair of the European Council.  The current 6 month rotating term would be expanded to 2 and half years with a possibility of one renewal.  One of the major criticisms of the EU by members and outsiders there is a lack of unity.  In a union where 21 official languages are spoken and the Parliament meets in three different cities it’s no wonder there is a lack of cohesion.  The constitution wouldn’t have solved all of these problems but it certainly would have helped. 

            France’s political image took a downfall when its people voted down the constitution.  Many have attributed the outcome to President Chirac’s waning popularity and a resulting vengeful mentality.  Clara Thibault, a French intern at the FACC was upset with the outcome.  “Everybody’s against Chirac.  They just say ‘no’ because they’re so angry.”   In a poll taken the same weekend as the referendum a whopping 74percent of the population had no confidence in their president.  The numbers were similarly as high weeks later around Bastille Day, despite Chirac’s attempt to reshuffle some major governmental positions.  Other reasons for the vote could have been the French’s growing frustration with the high unemployment rate and anxiety about Turkey’s possible future admission.

            So, three months after the European Summit met in June and decided to postpone the November 2006 ratification deadline indefinitely there is still the lingering question about the EU’s future.  The US is a large trading partner for the EU as trillions of dollars are swapped every year.  Even the Pacific Northwest, Bensky pointed out, a region on the Pacific Rim, has a huge connection with the EU.  Business has dramatically increased over the past few years but investors are growing concerned about the constitutional stalemate.  The United States Mission to the EU mentions on their website that their “core concerns revolve around process-agency, transparency, accountability-and mutual regulation” and that they seek to help businesses with “compliance to EU standards” and “access to markets in key sectors.”  A fused Europe would ease many current difficulties and possibly lead to easier access. 

            For now, as Olivier Deschamps, a French FACC intern studying for his Master’s in International Business says, “the relationships are stronger than the new political aspect of the EU.  The integration process, politics, will not interfere with anything.  Business will continue to be business.” 

Bensky assures that the union is now going back and “reexamining its roots” just as it did in September of 2003 when he started in his current position.  “They couldn’t agree on a constitution but they did that.  The EU will survive.  [It] will move forward.”  As Jack Cowan, Executive Director of the FACC said, “on verra.”


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