Constitutional crisis: will voters shun the treaty?

Jo Leinen MEP

Constitution supporters must deploy a smart strategy to win over sceptical voters, says Jo Leinen MEP

The European constitution is indispensable for the historic project of a democratic, transparent EU which is capable of action. The constitution signed by the 25 heads of state and government is a great step forward: it improves the EU for its citizens because the Union becomes more understandable and citizens have new possibilities to participate and the Union becomes more efficient and effective.

Since the EU constitution is technically speaking still an international treaty, it has to be ratified according to the national rules in each member state. It is in the vital interests of the national governments and in fact of all pro-European political forces, to ensure that the constitution is approved by Europe’s citizens, especially in the ten or so member states where referenda are being held. Without the important institutional changes (more qualified majority voting, based on a fair system of double majority, a new EU foreign minister and a Commission president elected by the European Parliament, for example) an EU of 25 or more member states will not be able to meet citizens’ expectations.

Unfortunately it was not at this stage politically possible to make the third stage of the EU constitutional development (after the Convention and the intergovernmental conference (IGC)), a European process, with an EU-wide referendum on the same date, asking a European question: do we want to make our Union fit for the future?

In the present situation of 25 national debates on ratification, some with, some without a referendum, it is even more important that all supporters of the constitution work together to highlight that this is a European project. The national governments have to play a key role in emphasising not the small advantages which they managed to extract from their partners in the IGC, but the great improvements for all Europeans: the inclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, more democracy through a European citizens’ initiative, a framework to develop Europe’s voice in the world.

The EU also have to play an active part in these debates. The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to support the constitution – it is now our task to go to the different member states and explain to the citizens what Europe and the constitution are all about. The European Commission as the official “guardian” of the treaties has to provide information on the constitution. The political parties at European and at national level must mobilise the citizens and tell them clearly: Europe is our common future, and for Europe to work we need this constitution.

Most importantly, the constitution must be presented as an issue of and for the citizens and not just the elites. Civil society must be empowered to convince the people about the new opportunities contained in the constitution. Sports clubs, organisations and associations (from fields like youth, culture, health, environment etc) must be active partners in the constitutional dialogue with the citizens.

The ratification debate is now picking up momentum. If, by the end of next year, one country experiences difficulties in ratifying this document, the European Council has to find a solution. Clearly a ‘No’ to the constitution is a ‘No’ to a democratic and strong Europe. The country in question should be given a second chance to reconsider its position. One country should not be able to block all other member states in moving forward. A definite ‘No’ from a member state would mean the isolation of that country and its self-inflicted withdrawal from the constitutional Europe.

This is what is at stake in the decision for or against the European constitution. The ratification of the new treaty is therefore a test for the resolve of civil society and the political class in the EU to make the historic project of a united continent a reality.

German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen chairs the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee and is president of the UEF. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. This article first appeared in European Voice, 18 February 2005.

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