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How not to write a constitution

I cannot deny feeling a growing sense of satisfaction at the rejection of the EU Constitution by French voters.  I know it's a big setback to European integration, and that it's ruined a lot of peoples' days. I also know that a lot of the opposition to the Constitution came from very unsavory forces on the right and left.

But quite a large part of the rejection of the Constitution was due to public distrust of the ruling political class.  The distrust was earned; this class wrote a shitty Constitution.  Its 448 articles are the embodiment of the worst kind of opaque, abstract, consensus-clogged, untouched-by-reality thinking that European bureaucrats are capable of.  Let's take, for example, Article III-122 (selected at random):

Without prejudice to Articles I-5, III-166, III-167 and III-238, and given the place occupied by services of general economic interest as services to which all in the Union attribute value as well as their role in promoting its social and territorial cohesion, the Union and the Member States, each within their respective competences and within the scope of application of the Constitution, shall take care that such services operate on the basis of principles and conditions, in particular economic and financial conditions, which enable them to fulfil their missions.

The average citizen, reading this provision (after slogging through the first 2 articles, which are long indeed), would be completely nonplussed.  First, he'd have to cross-reference all the four other cited provisions -- no handy summaries here! -- to even get an understanding of the scope of this provision. 

Then he'd think: "Umm, as far as I can tell, this article says that 'services of general economic interest' should 'fulfill their missions.'"  What on earth is that supposed to mean?  Why is it worth a constitutional article to say something that is, at the same time, so vague and so obvious?  Then he'd begin to get suspicious..."maybe they're using some weird code here.  I bet this article really does do something, something I might not like.  And these cowardly bureaucrats are too afraid to tell me directly what it is."

Here's some free advice.  Scrap the current constitution.  Apologize to the voters for inflicting this monstrosity on them.  Have each of the Member States nominate one author or poet renowned for their spare, lucid prose.  Put this drafting commission into a room and give it 10 days to write a constitution.  Tell them it's got to achieve the basic structural objectives of the Constitution (i.e. reforming the decision-making process, which really is a priority).  But it has to do everything in fewer than 100 articles, that will fit on fewer than 20 regular-sized pages.  Longest permitted sentence length: 25 words. 

Of course, half of the members of the drafting conference will leave in outrage.  Good -- the smaller the better.  After you've got a draft, pick 100 people at random from Europe's population.  Give each of them 100 Euro to spend a few hours reading the constitution, and ask them at the end if they were able to understand it (not whether they agreed with everything in it, just whether they were able to understand it).  If fewer than 80% say yes, start the entire process again.  Repeat as necessary. 

Of course, wise European bureacrats are now smirking at this suggestion: "Oh my dear Mr. Hammel, of course that could never work.  You haven't the faintest idea how complex the whole process is."  But remember, these European bureacrats just brought you the existing European constitution, which is now only of interest as one of the biggest wastes of human energy and time in modern history. 

German Words of the Week: Eisprung & Nervensäge

It's been a while since I brought you a GWOW, so now you get a twofer, courtesy of Anke Groener, who writes a pleasant, lively blog.  In this post, she complains about "female problems":

Anke nölt über die üblichen Eisprungbauchschmerzen: „Der weibliche Körper ist eine einzige Nervensäge.“

First, for comic effect, let me translate this sentence 100% literally:

Anke complains about the usual eggjumpstomachpains: "The female body is one single nerve-saw."

Now, a bit more idiomatic:

Anke complains about the usual ovulation pains: "The female body is nothing but a pain-in-the-ass."

Ovulation, for those of you who've forgotten your high-school biology, is the release of a mature fertilizable egg from the ovary.  The German version is, as usually, a fabulously colorful combination of two words: Eisprung or "egg-jump"!  And could anything better convey annoyance than the image of someone sawing at your nerves?  Almost too horrifyingly expressive, isn't it?

French Voters Reject Constitution. Good for them.

So the EU Constitution has been rejected by a whopping 55% majority of French voters.  A few remarks:

  1. Germany decided against a referendum for its Constitutional vote.  Politicians from all major parties dismissed the idea of a referendum out of hand, with the justification (more or less) that you can never tell what the public might say, so we'd better not let them vote directly.  Good God, they could reject it!  This reminds me of an interview I recently saw with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  When asked what, in his opinion, was his greatest achievement in office, he said (I'm here quoting roughly from memory) "making sure there would be no referendum on the adoption of the Euro.  If there had been a referendum, there's no way Germans would have voted for it."
  2. Many will spin the rejection by saying "oh well, it's just a reflection of French voters' dissatisfaction with Chirac."  Which is true, to a significant extent.  But here's the problem with that argument.  The Constitution has over 400 articles, and regulates things as trivial as holiday houses on Malta.  Almost no Frenchmen could possibly have understood the document in full; so they had to rely on what politicians, "experts", and intellectuals told them about it.  Which leads me to the next point --

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They tried to warn us...

The Germany-aware blogosphere is twisting itself into knots over remarks made by German Ambassador to the United States Wolfgang Ischinger, which are reported in the most recent New Yorker:

"As older societies, we tend to think of ourselves as more experienced in the way societies evolve, and we tend to be skeptical of Americans who seem to think that if you believe hard enough, and you muster enough resources, you can change the world...In the last year or so, as we've engaged in discussions about the transformation of the Middle East and democracy, I have told my American friends that the region in this world that has seen the most transformation and change is Central and Eastern Europe--without shedding a drop of blood. So don't preach to us. And don't think transformative change will work according to mechanistic rules. This is very complicated. Changing the way people think often has to do with religious and cultural issues--we tend to think of them as long-term, and Americans think, Let's solve the problem in the next four years!"

Belgravia Dispatch splutters with rage:

I mean, how many silly, tired, protest-placard stereotypes can the good Ambassador mutter on about in one short interview with the New Yorker? Or does he seriously believe Washington policymakers aren't aware that democratization of Iraq isn't a long, multi-year (perhaps generational) task? Or that people in the Beltway are unawares that, er, religious and cultural factors play a role in the Iraq effort? Has he followed the roiling debates about a Sistani or a Sadr amidst U.S elites and commentariat (whether in think-tanks, in newspapers, in the blogosphere, even, on occasion, on television)?

Well, I am an American myself, and I am quite certain that Washington policymakers do realize now that democratization of Iraq is a multi-year task. 

Continue reading "They tried to warn us..." »

Hitler's "State of Robbery"

A new book of history is provoking heated debate here in Germany, and I would be remiss if I didn't introduce my readers to it.  It's by a left-wing historian named Goetz Aly, and it's called Hitler's Peoples' State: Robbery, Race-War, and National Socialism (my translation).  The main theses of the book are the following:

(1) The Holocaust was "the most conscientious mass robbery-murder in modern history," and served to enrich Germans and foreign collaborators.

(2) The exploitation of occupied territories actually contributed much more to the financing of the war than the German Reich itself;

(3) Inside the German Reich, the regime bought itself the support of a majority of the population by following an intentional "Robin Hood" policy of providing benefits to the lower classes at the expense of the rich; and

(4) The aggressive dynamics of national socialism sprang from a social-political promise ("A State for the People," "National Socialism") that could only be financially realized by Nazi seizure of the entire continent.

[Drawn from the excellent review (German) by Mark Spoerer of the University of Hohenheim, which can be found on the H-Soz-U-Kult Website]. 

You can read an English translation of an essay on the subject by Aly here, at the invaluable Sign and Sight website: "Anyone trying to understand the destructive success of National Socialism should look at the public face of the annihilation policy -- the modern, cosy and obliging welfare state."

Continue reading "Hitler's "State of Robbery"" »

Deduction Number 30: "The Penetrator"

As the title implies, this post will actually discuss the issue of tax-deductible sex toys.  You might say that I'm about to fill the holes in your knowledge with my penetrating analysis.  But first I just want to make sure nobody misses the fascinating debate raging in the comments section concerning the fitness of dowdy schoolmarm pioneering woman scientist Christian Democratic Party Chairwoman Angela Merkel as a candidate to be Federal Chancellor of Germany.  One commentator, a German who voted for Schröder in 2002 only "for cultural considerations (the fear of being overrun by Bavarians)" faces off against a non-German who cogently defends her.  Were my huge ego not in the way, I'd just let these fabulous commentators take over.  Please join their ranks, if you feel the urge!

Continue reading "Deduction Number 30: "The Penetrator"" »

A Loudmouth for the Union

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry puts the upcoming French constitutional vote into broader perspective.  His essential point is that, although the rejection of the EU Constitution might be a short-term loss for EU fans, it signals a long-term trend of European residents actually beginning to pay attention to what the EU is doing:

[P]people are beginning to articulate their grievances with the EU as it is, and to propose alternative ways of doing things. Domestic political parties are beginning to align themselves with different models of what Europe should be. This wasn’t possible as long as Europe was a vague set of aspirations that political elites from left and right could agree on, but that the public didn’t care about. And it arguably lays the foundations for a much more robust European Union than has existed in the past.

One passage caught my eye in particular:

While EU policy is shrouded in technocratic gobbledygook, it has very substantial political consequences. Nor are these consequences what you might expect. The European Union is typically perceived by English-speaking non-experts as a vaguely social-democratic bureaucratic leviathan, in part because of criticisms from the British government and the British tabloid press over the last couple of decades. In fact, its most important impact has been to further neo-liberalism by creating European markets, and by wearing down the particularities of national economic systems that are incompatible with these markets. The European Union has taken over vast swathes of economic decision-making, and effectively taken them out of democratic control. It’s no wonder that people on both the left and right are beginning to get upset by this; what’s more difficult to explain is why it’s taken them so long to begin to mobilize their frustration.

This touches on a pet theme of mine: the ability of European institutions to project their image in the English-speaking world.  Aside from a few Euro-enthusiasts such as T.R. Reid or Jeremy Rifkin, the average English-speaker's image of Europe, as a political entity, is determined by the British press, which whips up regular frenzies over isolated instances of Brussels-based Eurocratic excess.

Continue reading "A Loudmouth for the Union" »

How you get a new Chancellor

How does Gerhard Schroeder get to determine when new elections take place?  By getting his own party not to vote for him, oddly enough.  Looks odd to those of us who don't come from parliamentary democracies:

1.  The Chancellor first puts himself up for a vote of confidence before the Parliament.

2.  Members of the ruling coalition abstain from voting, resulting in the failure to sustain the vote of confidence by a parliamentary majority.

3.  This vote of no-confidence enables the Chancellor to ask the President of the Republic to dissolve the Parliament and call new elections.  The President is a sort of figurehead position currently inhabited by Horst Koehler, former head of the IMF.

4.  The President can dissolve the Parliament within 21 days, thus initiating new elections.

A nice little chart here (in German), Article 68 of the German Constitution (regulating procedure) here.  Of course, Schroeder hopes his coalition will win the new elections, but we'll just have to see about that...

Who really won this election?

I don't usually blog that much about German politics, but it would seem odd not to mention yesterday's local elections, since they signal big shifts in the political order here.  Yesterday, the conservative Christian Democrats creamed the Social Democrat/Green coalition which governs the state I live, Northern Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).  This is a truly momentous result, since NRW is Germany's most populous state, and had been ruled by the Social Democrats for over 30 years.  The Christian Democrats, under Jürgen Rüttgers, will shortly form a coalition with the Free Democrats (a small economically conservative/socially liberal party) and take over.  In the language of German politics, NRW will go from Red (Social Democrat)/Green to Black (Christian Democrat)/Yellow (Free Democrat). 

Social Democrat federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sent out the party chairman, Franz Müntefering, to acknowledge defeat, which had been expected.  Müntefering also announced that the governing Social Democrat/Green coalition would request national elections at the soonest possible time, which was a total shock.  One TV commentator embarrassed himself by cutting away from Müntefering's speech, which up to then had consisted of consoling platitudes, before Müntefering made the critical election announcement.

Continue reading "Who really won this election?" »

Eurovision: Poland and Austria Fail Again

It's here again -- the Eurovision song contest! 

10 countries were selected in the semifinals yesterday, by many others were not.  Including the prizewinner in my own personal competition, for MSV ("Matching Sequined Vest") appeal.  Poland's Ivan & Delfin ("Ivan & Dolphin") win here hands-down.   

Why were they rejected?  I'm no expert, but I would guess the accordion was probably fatal.  Even by generous European standards, mixing an accordion with faux-Elvistic matching outfits in the color of the Polish flag probably went too far.  I've no no idea what their song was called.  "Come back, Ljudmila, the Valley is Green"?  "The Mercedes of My Heart?"  More suggestions?  Anyone want to help me out here?

Now on to Austria.  It's easy to mock the folk-tinged sequined vestiness of it all, but at least the Poles were giving it their all -- "popping the cuffs," as Wayne Newton might put it.  Austria's Global.Kryner, by contrast, clearly phoned it in:

The cherubic Austrian maedchen on the left is down with the Eurovision groove: she's got something dirndl-esque on, and piles of makeup.  But who is the guy on the right?  It looks like he just stumbled out of bed.  He's wearing a track suit, for God's sake.  And playing a trombone. I can only hope and pray that he was a last-minute replacement, and couldn't fit into the original singer's lederhosen.  Possible song names: "The Beer Tastes like Your Kisses"; "Down to the Last Pfennig"

The Moldavian Repulic, however, made it through.  I will be rooting for them in Saturday's final, for obvious reasons: