A European Referendum for a European Constitution: strategy and action of the federalist organisation

A European Referendum for a European Constitution

By Richard Laming

Based on a speech, given at the Ventotene seminar, 4 September 2007

Thank you for the invitation to speak on the subject of the campaign for the referendum on the constitution. It is always a pleasure to come to Ventotene to discuss federalist politics among friends.

In many ways, this is the most important subject to be discussed this week, for the federalist movement exists not merely to study the state of politics but to try to influence it. And, in terms of trying to influence politics, there has been nothing more important lately than the European constitution.

Antonio Padoa Schioppa has already outlined the theoretical background to the campaign demands and the political and constitutional principles that they embody. And Peter Matjašic will discuss in a moment some of the practical lessons arising from the campaign actions we have been running this year, but before then I will look at some of the political lesson that arise from that campaign.

The first point to make, therefore, is that this has been a campaign and not merely a strategic analysis or demand. The federalist movement has been engaging in the issues that are current in European politics, on the front pages of the newspapers and not confined to the journals of political science. I am really proud of that: I joined our organisation because I wanted to play a role in changing the way that European politics works, and this campaign has been an expression of that.

I think that all of us who have been involved in this campaign can be proud of what we have done. But in addition to pride, we must also learn the lessons from what we have done.

In the analysis that I am about to present, I will break the political issue into three parts:

– The European constitution
– The European referendum
– The conditions for entry into force of the constitution

And for each of these three issues, I will look at:

– The specific federalist demand
– What that demand says about the progress of European integration
– What that demand says about the federalist movement itself

If we are to analyse our campaign thoroughly and learn the right lessons from it, whether to sustain this campaign or to replace it with a new one, we need to be frank and systematic about looking at what we have done so far.

The European constitution

What federalists argue: Europe needs a constitution in order to become a federation.

What it means for Europe: a fundamental change in the nature of the European Union, reducing the apparent power of the national governments and strengthening instead the European institutions and the rights of the citizens themselves. Federalists also argue that in many ways, in a progressively interdependent world, the apparent power of the national governments is increasingly a shadow of its former self.

What it means for the federalists: we have to find allies among those to whom the constitution offers something they would not get otherwise. We therefore have to emphasise the features that make our proposal attractive to them, not necessarily those which make it attractive to us. We need to get people to back our proposal not for our reasons but for their reasons. For example, those people who want to see justice for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis need a more effective Europe on the international scene. And those people who want to see serious steps taken to fight the threat of climate change need a more effective Europe on the global scene. Both of these two issues are reasons for Europe to have a constitution.

The European referendum

What federalists argue: that the constitution should be ratified by a European referendum, held in every European country on the same day.

What it means for Europe: that decisions about the future of Europe should be taken by the people and not only by the national governments.

What it means for the federalists: we have adopted a radical and imaginative measure to make Europe more democratic. The call for a referendum puts us decisively on the side of those people in politics who believe in direct democracy and are suspicious of political parties and institutions. It is a demand that can also be used carefully to appeal to those who want to make the EU closer to the citizen but who are not sure exactly how to do it. A word of warning, though. Much of the federalist analysis depends on the effectiveness of political parties and institutions, particularly those at the European level. We need to be careful about fuelling opposition to the kind of developments which in fact we would prefer to support.

Entry into force

What federalists argue: that the constitution should come into force in those countries that vote Yes and not those that vote No, as long as there is a double majority of citizens and states in favour.

What it means for Europe: that the old idea that the EU develops in parallel throughout Europe might come to an end. (Actually, in many ways, the principle has already been broken, e.g. opt-outs on the euro in the Maastricht treaty.)

What it means for the federalists: this is one of the hardest points for us. On one hand, it is essential to get round the national veto on the future of Europe: while we reject the tyranny of the majority, we also reject the tyranny of the minority. But on the other hand, it means that the future shape of Europe will be decided by a referendum outcome and not necessarily by any reference to objective interests. Referendums can produce all kinds of strange and unexpected results – the No votes in some of the traditionally most pro-European countries prove that – and we have to be ready for that. If France and the Netherlands could vote No, any country could, next time. A European referendum rather than national referendums means that it is less likely, but it is not impossible.

Also, we need to be careful here, because we might find support from racist opponents of Turkish membership of the EU. (There may be good reasons to oppose Turkish accession, but racism is not one of them.)

After the Reform Treaty

If those are some thoughts about the political arguments we have been making so far, we also have to think about what comes next. In that context, I want to raise two points which are, I think, of absolute and new importance to our future campaigning.

First, we need to realise that the Reform Treaty, while falling short of the constitution we demanded and even the constitutional treaty we were hoping to get, will nevertheless take European integration some useful steps forward. We can’t be sure exactly what the treaty will say, as the negotiations are not yet over, but the following points are already clear:

– The European Parliament will gain co-decision power in almost every area of EU legislation and over the whole of the budget, including agriculture
– The connection between the results of the European elections and the choice of the next European Commission president will be strengthened
– The Council of Ministers will meet in public and vote by a more rational and comprehensible voting system (double majority)
– The Charter of Fundamental Rights will acquire legal force (except for a rather peculiar opt-out for the UK)

If accompanied by the development of meaningful European political parties, the system created by the Reform Treaty will look a lot like the kind of parliamentary democracy practised in most EU member states themselves. The argument of the democratic deficit is going to look increasingly hard to make, and its solution will not really lie in further institutional reform.

Secondly, there is the wider nature of European integration itself. It is acquiring a cultural and even emotional existence in the minds of the European people, along with but also separate from the European institutions. This means that we should not imagine that a clever institutional fix can somehow solve the problem of weak public support for Europe. A European development based, say, on the original six founding member states alone will have no resonance in the mind of the European people and thus no legitimacy or viability.

The truth is that we can only win the argument for Europe among the European people themselves. There is no short-cut. Democracy may be composed of the kratos, the political system, but it is also composed of the demos, the people. If Europe is to have a constitution, it will only be with the assent of the Europeans. The benefits of the constitution have to be explained, and that, above all else, is the argument that federalists have to win.

This article was contributed by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

View the Powerpoint presentation at 070828ventotenespeech2007

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