Constitutional Treaty: the ‘reflection period’ [Archived]

After the rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands in late spring 2005, a “period of reflection” on the future of Europe was launched to reconnect the citizens with the European project and to decide the fate of the Constitution. In January 2007, the German Presidency declared the reflection period was over, still its outcome is uncertain.  

On 29 October 2004 the 'EU Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe' (see LinksDossier) was signed by the 25 EU member states and three candidate countries (Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey). To enter into force, it must be ratified by all member states, which were originally given time until October 2006 to do so. Declaration 30 stated that if, by 1 November 2006, only four fifths of the member states (meaning at least 20) had ratified the constitutional text and the others encountered ratification difficulties, the matter would be referred to the European Council. 

In France (on 29 May 2005) and the Netherlands (on 1 June 2005) the citizens rejected the Constitution in a referendum, resulting in a ratification crisis. The fact that two founding countries of the European Community were unable to ratify the Constitution resulted in a major shock. Luxembourg's prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker summed up what many felt when he said: "Europe no longer makes people dream" (see EURACTIV, 2 June 2005). 

In mid-June 2005 he declared on behalf of the European Council: "We do not feel that the date initially planned for a report on ratification of the Treaty, the 1 November 2006, is still tenable, since those countries which have not yet ratified the Treaty will be unable to furnish a clear reply before mid 2007 [...] This leads us to think that a period for reflectionclarification and discussion is called for both in the countries which have ratified the Treaty and in those which have still to do so".

The main idea was to give the countries more time to debate and to ratify the Constitution. Those who wished, could put ratification on hold. 

Originally, the period of reflection was supposed to last no longer than one year. However, while more than half of the countries have already ratified the text (see Overview), EU heads of state and governments agreed on 15 and 16 June 2006 that a solution to the constitutional deadlock should only be in place by end 2008  at the latest (under the French Presidency).

What is at stake is not only the fate of the EU Constitutional Treaty, but also the question how the EU can gain more support from its citizens.

1. The Constitutional Treaty

A) Maintaining the Constitution: Some EU leaders promote the idea that ratification should be continued. They think that, in accordance with declaration 30, the matter should be taken up again by the European Council if twenty countries have ratified the text by 1 November 2006. 

However, while chances for ratification are fairly good in Finland, Sweden and Portugal, its fate in Denmark, Great Britain, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic and, of course, France and the Netherlands, is far more uncertain.

In the debates on how public opinion could be turned in favour of the Constitution, three main options are being envisaged. Firstly, some countries could have ‘opt-outs’ from certain areas (as Denmark received after its “nej” to the Maastricht Treaty) and, secondly, a declaration or protocol could be signed to strengthen the social dimension of the EU. Finally, some have proposed deleting the word “Constitution” from the text. However, none of these options seem very likely, nor would they probably work for all countries.  

B) A new Treaty: Alternatively, some propose to revise the Constitutional Treaty or to keep only its first two parts (containing institution provisions and fundamental rights). However, there are not many who believe that a result could be achieved - whether by a new Convention or another Intergovernmental Conference - that would be more likely to gain the support of all countries and a majority of their citizens. 

C) Cherry-Picking: Others suggest that some elements of the Constitutional Treaty could be implemented either within the current framework or by amending the Treaty of Nice (in force since 2003). Thus, EU leaders in June 2006 decided  to open Council meetings to the public and broadcast them over the internet, whenever the Council acts as co-legislator, thereby aiming to improve transparency.     

However, opponents fear that simply implementing certain elements of the Constitution without changing the legal framework would make the EU even more complex. Furthermore, there are few who believe that the Nice Treaty is a viable basis for the EU and further enlargements. 

2. Better communication

The Commission has launched a number of initiatives to improve its communication with the citizens, among them an action plan  to make its communication more professional, a “Plan D for democracy, dialogue and debate” (see EURACTIV 21 September 2005) and a White Paper on a European communication policy (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). The main objectives are to listen and communicate better to the citizens, to trigger more debates and to “go local” by adapting the Commission's messages more to national and local concerns.

However, having to rely largely on national actors (governments, political parties, civil society organisations etc.)., its impact at national level is rather limited.

3. "Europe of results"

On 10 May Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Vice-president Margot Wallström presented the Commission's new “citizens’ agenda”   that was drafted on the basis of the contributions it had received from ‘Plan D’ and the national debates. “We demonstrate that we have listened to citizens”, Wallström said, “They trust the European Union on policy delivery”. The main objective is a “Europe of results” to meet the expectations of the citizens in a number of areas: internal market, social cohesion and rights, freedom, security and justice and the EU's role in the world (see EURACTIV 11 May 2006). 

While there is widespread agreement that EU policies should be more in touch with the wishes and concerns of its citizens, the main dilemma for the EU is that in many of those areas where the citizens want "more Europe" and where they have the biggest concerns (such as employment and foreign and security policy), the EU is highly dependent on its member states to deliver. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to give a boost to the constitutional issue during the German presidency in 2007. She said the text “must be something which deserves the name 'Constitution' and not merely an institutional set of rules".

French presidential candidate-hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a “Mini-Treaty”, which would take up "about two-thirds" of items in the Constitution that were "not critical" issues during the failed referenda in France and the Netherlands. He would like to see the text adopted during the German EU Presidency in 2007 and ratified during the French Presidency in 2008.

UK Europe Minister Geoff Hoon said: "Let me make clear: we must make progress...the status quo is not an option." He added: "To do nothing on improving the EU's decision-making could jeopardise the liberalisation of our markets, the benefits to consumers, tackling climate change and the enlargement process."

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern warned: "This finely balanced package, once unravelled, will be impossible to put together again."

Commission President José Manuel Barroso emphasised that institutional reform was necessary for three reasons: Firstly, the need to improve efficiency of decision-making, secondly, the growing distance between Europe and its citizens, and thirdly the need for greater external coherence. Barroso added that institutional reform was necessary to allow further enlargement.

Commissioner for Communication Margot Wallström said that “the Commission would not like to depart too much from the Constitutional Treaty” and cautioned that “difficulties might be faced when revising Part III”.

Josep Borrellpresident of the European Parliament suggested that there are four “possible scenarios” for the Constitution: either keeping the text as it is, saving the main elements, reopening negotiations on certain points or abandoning the text entirely.

Liberal MEP Andrew Duff presented his “Plan B” to rescue the constitution in a paper. He suggests keeping the “uncontroversial parts”, such as Part I, moving Part II, the Charter of Fundamental Rights to the annex and changing Part III on policies. In respect of the policies, he intends to add the Lisbon Agenda, a Protocol on a Social Union, the climate-change issue, enlargement policy and the financial system.

Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope strongly opposed Duff’s plan to revive the Constitution and warned that this “will further increase Europe’s “democratic deficit”. Kirkhope said: "The constitution is a non-starter. All this talk of resuscitating it is a huge waste of effort, time and money.” He further added: “It is time to give the Constitution a decent burial and move on to a real reform programme in Europe."

Social Democrat MEP Jo Leinen warned that “cherry picking” was not an alternative. He thinks that allowing some elements to be implemented would “result in the opening up of the entire Constitution package and lead to renegotiations". He also emphasises the danger of threatening the delicate balance between the different institutions contained in the Constitution.

The European Parliament wants the Constitution to enter into force in 2009. It has demanded from the member states to organise “Citizens’ Forums” at national, regional and local level to discuss the future of Europe with, particularly, social partners and civil society organisations. National political parties should also “give much more prominence to the European dimension in both their internal debates and electoral campaigning”. The period of reflection should end at the latest in the second half of 2007, with a clear decision on the fate of the Constitution (see Duff-Voggenhuber report).

The EU Civil Society Contact Group, an alliance of the seven largest European NGO platforms, including the Social Platform and the Green 10, called on the EU leaders to, finally, start open and inclusive debates with the citizens on the European project. Otherwise, the reflection period might be followed by an “even longer period of frustration” for those citizens who have not been heard.

According to social NGOs EU leaders must finally take account of the social concerns of the citizens. The Constitution lacks a strong social dimension. “To respond in a convincing way to this structural issue requires more than adding a few words to the present text. It requires considering new forms of governance aimed at establishing a fair balance between social and economic/internal market objectives," said Social Platform President, Anne-Sophie Parent

The Union of European Federalists (UEF) asked the European Parliament to re-launch the constitutional process by convening parliamentary fora with own delegates and representatives of national parliaments. 

The Young European Federalists (JEF) called on the governments, national parliaments and the Commission to provide a proper structure and plan for the dialogue on the future of Europe. JEF President Jan Seifert said: "It is an insult to ask the public to ‘discuss’ without actually trying to translate the public interest into concrete policy outcomes”.

  • 15-16 June 2006: At the summit in Brussels the EU heads of state and government decided to solve the constitutional crisis until end 2008
  • July 2006: end of consultation on Commission communication white paper
  • July - December 2006: The Finnish Presidency wants to "start preliminary work on exploring the options regarding the Constitutional Treaty" 
  • 22 November 2006: The Commission gave its assessment of the cost of the non-Constitution
  • 17 January 2007: German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated the period of reflection was over
  • 25 March 2007, Berlin: Celebrating the EU's 50th anniversary at an informal summit in Berlin, EU leaders on 25 March 2007 vowed to have a new treaty in place by 2009
  • June 2007: The German presidency wants to put forward proposals on how to proceed with the Constitutional Treaty
  • December 2007: the Council will take its decision to modify the constitution 
  • July-December 2008: Possibly solution to constitutional deadlock (under French Presidency)
  • June 2009: European Parliament elections; there are also calls for a EU-wide referendum on the Constitution

An overview of the upcoming EU presidencies is available here

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