The summit taking place later this week is provoking a lot of discussion and activity among the federalists. The central arguments of the campaign by the UEF are that the summit should commit (1) to agreeing a European constitution and (2) to putting that constitution to a consultative referendum everywhere in Europe on the same day.
Now, there is quite a strong understanding of the idea that a European constitution requires a referendum. If substantial steps are to be taken in the direction of European integration, then the direct approval of the people should be sought. This is the argument of the British anti-European newspapers, for example, although their definition of substantial is rather slight. It is also the argument of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, although in their case they intend to argue that the steps taken are sufficiently modest so as not to require a referendum.
The federalist argument is more sophisticated than this, however. Not only does it argue that a constitution requires a referendum, it also argues that a referendum requires a constitution. The act – the historically unprecedented act – of putting an international agreement like this to a popular referendum will, of itself, grant that agreement more standing than the mere words it contains might otherwise justify. If this is the case, then the agreement must therefore merit the referendum: a constitutional treaty rather than an institutional one.
The next step in the argument is that the referendum should be held everywhere in Europe on the same day. This will free national government leaders from the fear that the referendum in their own country will turn out to be an opinion poll on their own performance: no, a European referendum will give the debate a very different character and the final choice a very different purpose.
So, the two demands – for the constitution and for the referendum – are not separate but linked. And the starting point for the demand for the constitution is the text of the constitutional treaty that was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. At the time it was agreed in 2004, it represented the consensus of national governments throughout the Union. Some of those national governments have since changed hands – in Poland and France, for example – and others in the same hands have simply changed their minds – in the UK. But nevertheless the constitutional treaty is the starting point.
It will have to be amended in order to take into account the criticisms expressed in the referendum results in France and the Netherlands, and no doubt there will be other changes too, but the federalist argument is that such changes should in general be kept to the minimum. They need to be enough, but not excessive. The federalists are not engaging in a detailed discussion of the content of the next treaty beyond that: different individuals and groups have floated possible ideas, but the core position of the federalists rests on the principle rather than the content.
This of course provokes an important question: what if the next treaty is a substantial retreat from the constitutional treaty of 2004, so much so that it might no longer merit a referendum? There will be a decision for the federalists to take about whether the changes to the text are so great as to mean that a referendum is no longer appropriate. That’s not a decision that can be taken now, but depends on the outcome of the negotiations. The summit might set down some lines for these negotiations, but they will go on for some months afterwards. (There have been some strong criticisms of those negotiations, too, which you can read here.)
My final point is that we should not write off now the prospects of the right outcome from the summit. There are some in the federalist movement who have already done so, but that position invites a reflection on the broader notion of what it means to be involved in politics.
Next season, I hope that Manchester United win the Champions League. I will be spending some evenings in the pub or in front of the television watching them play, cheering them on. But all the time and attention I might give them will make no difference to whether they win. What matters is whether Ronaldo and Anderson gel, whether Wayne Rooney keeps his temper, whether Rio Ferdinand keeps his concentration, not whether I happen to be watching them. I am a fan, not a participant.
It seems to me that those federalists who have written off the convention/summit constitutional process already are settling for the role of fans rather than participants. Interested in European politics, reading about it, talking about it over a coffee, but not engaged in making a difference.
Far better to realise how much is stake and how much still remains to be decided. Football is a spectator sport, politics is not. Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlos Queiroz have my confidence: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do not.