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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
EU wrestling with age-old ideas
By Tim Franks
BBC News, Brussels

Cover of book
The book charts attempts to make the idea of Europe work
A large and splendid coffee-table book is doing the rarefied rounds in Europe.

The print run is small, and at the moment, it is handed out only to VIPs, and some retiring EU officials.

It charts the attempts over the last seven centuries to draft the laws and constitutions that might bring Europe together.

That means there is no room for the abstract musings of Victor Hugo on the nature of Europe. It limits itself to those who tried to find ways to make the idea of Europe work.

Guy Milton, a senior EU official who helped edit the book, says it is clear how the big questions with which the union is now wrestling are those which exercised the continent's thinkers and diplomats back to the Middle Ages.

One obvious unifying theme is the desire to avoid conflict.

British federalists

But it goes deeper. We read that Dante, for example, did not just write the Divine Comedy, he wrote about subsidiarity - about a political unity in Europe which respected the autonomy and diversity of its regions.

Emil Ludwig
Emil Ludwig proposed monetary union
The 15th-Century King of Bohemia, George of Podiebrad, tried to map where Europe ends by advocating a continental confederation of independent states.

Emil Ludwig, a German whose books were burned by the Nazis, proposes monetary union.

And there are the long-forgotten British federalists of the 1930s and 40s. This was no esoteric sect. A book written in 1939 by a headmaster called William Curry, The Case for Federal Union, sold more than 100,000 copies in six months.

The British federalists championed the idea of community law, of a directly-elected European parliament, of a council of ministers, of a supreme European court.

They may be lost from British history, but we know their writings directly inspired some of the founders of the European community.

Which brings us to the question: why did the latest attempt to write a European Constitution fail, or at the very least stall - given that it had the advantage of a European Union already in existence?

Incremental steps

Well let us - for the sake of brevity, as well as cowardice - put aside the arguments over whether it was a centralising power grab or whether people in France and the Netherlands were voting on other issues.

Packaging Europe within a Constitution appeared as a rejection of the empirical and pragmatic method which had proved its worth over half a century
EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana
There is a revealing argument made at the end of the book, in a postscript, by the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

He writes that the success of the union, over the last 50 years, has been to eschew the grand gesture... and rather to concentrate on the incremental and the practical.

"In attempting to satisfy the very human desire for neatness and certainty," he writes, "packaging Europe within a Constitution appeared as a rejection of the empirical and pragmatic method which had proved its worth over half a century."

But there are plenty of others in the EU who still believe that the constitution must survive, in more or less its entirety.

Some warn of an institutional train crash in three years' time.

The last EU treaty says that when Europe becomes a club of 27, as it will be by 2009, there will have to be fewer than one commissioner per member state.

German role

But if you start hacking at the size of the Commission, then that throws up all sorts of questions about new institutional counterbalances in and between the forum for member states and the European Parliament.

An engraving from an earlier attempt at a European constitution
A new, essentially constitutional settlement must be reached, goes the argument.

Much of the received wisdom in Brussels is that what will happen at this summit is that the current "period for reflection" will be extended by a year.

And that it will fall to the German presidency of the EU, in the first half of 2007, to propose where to take the constitution.

But that could be highly contentious. The Germans are fans of the constitution - they do pretty well out of it.

Others, including the British, would prefer that it be left for dead.

Seven centuries after Dante first started musing about subsidiarity, we have not nearly reached the end of the story.

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