LONDON — After eight years of trial and many errors, the European Union took a giant step toward establishing a constitution over the weekend when voters in Ireland ratified the Treaty of Lisbon.
The Irish electorate comprehensively rejected the same treaty a little more than a year ago but was given a do-over opportunity. This time voters came up with the right answer. The Irish electorate's change of mind didn't come because there were guns pointed at their heads. Minds in Ireland were concentrated by the collapse of the Irish economy over the last year and a half, and reassured by commitments that certain issues, such as abortion and taxes, would not be dictated from Brussels. A smallish nation suddenly realized its economic future lay with membership of a deeply-flawed but remarkable economic, and increasingly political, club.
So now, once Polish and Czech leaders sign on, the EU's operations will be streamlined and for the first time it will have a "High Representative for Foreign Affairs."
The Europeans will also have a real president. The office will no longer be distributed on a rotating basis among the government chiefs of the EU's members. Nor will they have to call the office of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
What power the office of EU president will have is not spelled out in the treaty. Still, it's a cool title and no less a person than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made it clear through his spin machine that he wants the job. British bookies make him the favorite to get the job. And if the odds maker makers are right, Blair will have a chance to shape and define the leadership of the European Union.
The back story: The European Union was born of historical necessity. Three times in 70 years Germany had invaded France. The escalating destruction wreaked across Europe by the conflict between the two nations left continental leaders looking for a way to put the two nations in harness economically rather than in violent competition.
In the early 1950s a visionary French civil servant named Jean Monnet laid the foundation for the European Economic Community. Out of Monnet's idealism came the EEC, which was established by treaty. Treaty by treaty the EEC grew into the EU, which now has 27 members.
It has been a uniquely successful international organization in many ways, the most obvious being that for almost 65 years there has been no war on this most blood-soaked of continents. It used potential membership of the club to end fascism in Portugal, Greece and Spain. Taken as a whole the EU is the world's largest economy.
The organization has used this clout to negotiate incredibly favorable trade deals for its member countries and it has allowed farmers to stay in business through its massive subsidies to the agricultural sector — all this for dues that are about 1.25 percent of a country's income. The EU then provides grants back to countries based on their needs. Ireland received more than it paid in for decades, which allowed it to build the transportation and technological infrastructure that drove their economic miracle.
But the idealism of the civil servant Jean Monnet was also a kind of original sin. Bureaucrats, most of them far less conscientious than Monnet, ended up running the show via the European Commission, the administrative arm of the EU, headquartered in Brussels. With each successive treaty there tended to be a top down imposition of the bureaucrats' vision on the union. As decades wore on resentment of Brussels bureaucrats became part of the weave of daily life around Europe. Whenever politicians needed an easy target, they kicked the faceless Brussels civil servant. In some places this resentment was transformed into political ideology. Britain's Conservative Party has become defined by its "Euro-scepticism."
Return to the present: After the fall of the Soviet Union there was a rush to bring the former Eastern Bloc nations into the EU fold. An organization that had six founding member countries nearly doubled in size in the span of a decade. The EU was becoming unworkable, so the bureaucrats decided to write a constitution that was ready for ratification in 2004. Whatever its good points the constitution demonstrated more than anything the gap between the civil servants and the people of Europe.
I am one of the few people who read the constitution in its eye-crossing entirety. Imagine if a bunch of graduates of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the Wharton School got into a room and decided to update the American Constitution for the 21st Century. Then, without public consultation of any kind, wrote a document of several hundred pages of buzz words and technocratic jargon and acted like it was the obligation of the rest of the country to simply rubber stamp the document. Now you get a feel for how the treaty was written and, more importantly, how it was sold across Europe.
It was a train-wreck waiting to happen and the crash was ugly to watch. The French were given an opportunity to vote for ratification and they turned it down. Then the Dutch did the same. It was back-to-the-drawing-board time. The constitution was mildly re-written and turned into the Treaty of Lisbon.
Re-naming it a "Treaty" was a good bureaucratic maneuver. As in the U.S., in most European nations treaties are ratified by the legislative branch of government not the general electorate. The exception was Ireland and the Irish voted no when first asked. The moaning in Brussels was audible from Warsaw to, well, to Lisbon. Then came the economic apocalypse and the Irish saw the light. EU membership was critical to the Irish economic miracle of the 1990s. The Irish need a bit more of the miraculous economic help that EU membership does undoubtedly convey. Inside the jargon, the Lisbon Treaty offers some common sense solutions for managing the business of the enlarged EU. The real headline in the Lisbon Treaty is that job Tony Blair wants so much: President of the European Council of Ministers (President of Europe for short). Not that the citizens of Europe will have a vote on who fills the position. No, the presidency will be decided by a qualified majority of the member states, heavily influenced by the most populous — Germany, France and the U.K.
Blair's strong interest in the presidency is providing Britain's Conservatives with more ammunition to beat up on the EU. London's Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative and former Brussels-based journalist, wrote in Monday's Daily Telegraph: "A spectre is haunting Europe, my friends. That spectre has a famously toothy grin and an eye of glistering sincerity and an almost diabolical gift of political self-reinvention." Johnson then asks in all seriousness, "In what sense will the views of the 'President of Europe' be related to the views of the British people?"
It is a reasonable question, one that an elected politician would think to ask, but not necessarily one that an unelected bureaucrat might think had to be answered.
Despite the new treaty, the flaw at the heart of the European Union's organization — its over-reliance on unelected civil servants, the "democratic deficit" — still remains.