By Jo Leinen
In the coming twelve months there is to be a phase of reflection about the future of the European project. Unfortunately, the European Council did not tell us how this reflection phase is to be organised, or what should happen with the results produced by this debate. I see two major dangers: first, by stopping the ratification process, we also risk freezing the debate about the EU constitution. The ‘pause’ in the ratification process takes the dynamics out of the debate.
The second danger is that the European discourse could be led, once again, top-down and not from the bottom up. The idea launched by the French President Jacques Chirac, to have a special summit to discuss the consequences of the ‘No’ votes, is symptomatic of the old approach of the European elites. These kind of top-down debates do not correspond to the requirements of European democracy and to the wish of the European demos to be directly involved in European decision-making, which manifested itself so forcefully in the referenda.
A reflection exclusively via or within civil society is equally doubtful. Civil society is fragmented into different interest groups and it does not have a legitimate umbrella organisation which would represent all parts of the population. To me it therefore seems that now the hour of the parliaments has come. The European Parliament and the national parliaments could call a European Congress in the form of parliamentary hearings, to serve as a platform for the grand dialogue about Europe. If the name had not been used up already by then Convention president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, I would call this a ‘Congress of the People’. As a new institution within the EU structure, this was not a good idea. As a new instrument for as broad a public debate as possible, such a body could still be useful.
Parliamentarians are the only directly elected representatives of the citizens at European, national and often regional level. They thus have the task of organising the debate with the citizens about the future of Europe. Similar to the Convention, the European Congress should be an open and transparent forum and should conduct the debate together with the other European institutions, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Centralised events in Brussels are not sufficient, however. In parallel there should be European fora for dialogue with the population at the national and, where possible, at the regional and local level as well.
The politicians should first and foremost listen to what the citizens have to say. Also, using modern media like the internet, key questions and key concerns of the people should be discussed.
Among the most important issues for debate are the growth and employment crises in the EU, the pressures on our social standards and social systems from global competition, questions regarding the enlargement and the borders of the EU, problems of transparency and democracy in the decision-making system of the Union and fears of the loss of identity. After the listening phase we need a phase of synthesis. The European Congress would have the task of producing concrete recommendations as the result of the broad debate. These recommendations should go to all the institutions which are actors in European policymaking, and should lead to concrete action plans in order to promote the European project with more clarity and more decisiveness. Such an open and broadly based debate could help to win back the citizens’ confidence in the usefulness and effectiveness of the EU. In a mid-term review in May/ June 2006 it would then have to be decided how to proceed with the European constitution. If there is sufficient support from the European public, ratification should be continued and completed. If the resistance to this project remains, we might have to consider alternatives.
The current crisis is also an opportunity. On few occasions have we had such a good chance to interest large parts of the public in the European issue. There will therefore be no pause in the thinking in the coming months, but rather a call to join the big debate about defining the future of the European continent.
Jo Leinen is a German social democrat MEP. He is chairman of the constitutional affairs committee in the European Parliament and former president of the UEF. This article first appeared in European Voice, 23 June 2005.