Chance for a Real Debate on the EU’s Constitution?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Writer and commentator on European affairs Kirsty Hughes and Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, senior analyst at the Elcano Institute in Madrid argue in this article, that the EU should move on following the institutional impasse and regain political confidence.

Kirsty Hughes is a former Commission official who moved on to a senior role at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a leading Brussels Think-tank. She is now a writer and commentator on European affairs.
Jose Ignacio Torreblanca is a senior Analyst at the Elcano Institute in Madrid and co-editor of blogeuropa.eu.

After 18 months of dispiriting limbo since the French and Dutch twin ‘nos’ to the EU’s draft constitution, the pretence of a period of reflection (more a long period of inaction and worry) is over.  Heading the German Presidency, Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that informal and private discussions are to be held among the member states on what to do with the constitution, (a constitution declared dead by many but refusing to go quietly).

But the German softly-softly approach looks like being rudely upstaged by the gathering in Madrid on 26 January of those 18 countries – ‘friends of the constitution’ – who have already ratified it. And even two countries who have yet to ratify – Ireland and Portugal – have asked to come as well, declaring that they too are friends of the constitution. 

The decision by Spain and Luxembourg to set up this event has annoyed some – from the German presidency themselves, to other doubters on the constitution notably the UK, Poland and the Czechs, to the French and Dutch who remain undecided as to what if anything they would like, or be able to do, to help Europe move forward again. But while those who are dismayed by the Spanish-Luxembourg move mutter and complain about idealists versus realists, this may prove to be more a conflict between democrats and cynics.

Back in December 2001, in their now perhaps regretted Laeken declaration, the EU’s leaders owned up publicly to a loss of public support and engagement in the political project that is today’s Union. In ringing terms, they declared they would close the gap between Union and public, project the EU as a political and moral force in the world, and make sure the soon-to-be enlarged Union would be efficient as well as more democratic.  And to show their new transparency, and as a first step to engaging the public, for the first time the EU held 18 months of public discussion in the constitutional convention, before reverting to a more typical closed doors approach to finally agree the constitutional treaty.

It was because the EU recognised it faced these challenges – of no longer being an elitist body, of truly democratically engaging the public, and developing a real strategic approach and structures for an enlarged Union – that it adopted this high profile Laeken declaration, and this is why so many member states went on to say they would ratify the constitution through referenda. Time, it was said, for a major shift.

But faced with the twin French and Dutch ‘nos’, the EU’s leaders have been dismally non-plussed ever since. With the approach of the French presidential election, the hope is (with little discussion of where the Dutch stand) that Sarko or Sego will help find a way out of the mire. And behind the scenes, many hope that some form of ‘mini-treaty’ as proposed by Sarkozy could be the way ahead.  Sotto voce, many also admit that his proposals are not so ‘mini’ but argue that if some but not all of the key institutional and democratic changes are squeezed into a redrafted version of the Nice treaty, then they can be ratified through parliaments, while politicians explain to their publics that these are all much smaller, more technical, less significant (but somehow dearly needed) changes. On top of that, many have rushed to denounce referenda as undemocratic – something we would not have heard if the French and Dutch had voted ‘yes’, when the talk would have been of resounding endorsements by the people.

This is a long, and deeply cynical, way from the refreshing honesty and recognition of the need for real democratic change in the EU back in 2001.  And so, in fact the Spanish and Luxembourgers are to be congratulated: for bringing clearly, into the public light of day, the political disagreements as to where to go next with the constitution; for challenging the French and Germans not simply to concoct some behind-the-scenes deal that everyone else will be pressured into signing up to; for not disowning their own work and political support for what was in the constitution (signed after all by 27 governments and endorsed by 500 MEPs).

To criticise the Spanish-Luxembourg move for potentially derailing the private German discussions, is to show scant regard for democracy and public debate. It is a back to the old days of elitist, intergovernmental agreement that alienated the European public in the first place.  Some say that it will make life difficult for the French presidential candidates as they may find their hands forced to commit to positions on the constitution during their election campaigns – but wouldn’t that be democratic, and haven’t Sarko and Sego already made public pronouncements?

Others argue the January 26 meeting in Madrid will polarise the EU, between the two-thirds who have ratified and the one-third that have not? But why should it when all 27 governments did originally sign the constitution, and there is no agreement among the non-ratifiers, not even among the French and Dutch, as to which bits of the constitution are no longer acceptable?  And how can the EU public be expected to support treaty changes (even if they no longer get a voice through referenda) where the deal, and the debate is all held behind closed doors?  

The dash to get away from the dreadful, ungrateful public may anyway not succeed. The Irish will almost certainly have to hold a referendum on any future treaty. Under Segolene Royal, France may do so too, leaving the British in a quandary, once again facing domestic calls for a referendum that a Brown government won’t know how to win.

The EU needs to move on. It needs to regain political energy and confidence – internally, in its region, globally. It can’t do that until it finds a way out of its constitutional debacle. Germany must take the lead in its presidency. But it should have the confidence and the democratic instinct to welcome, not contest, the Madrid meeting. Grubby deals, even in rooms no longer full of smoke, are not what the 21st century EU needs.

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