The future of the European Constitution

Michael Siebert and Brendan Donnelly

By Emmanouil Vrentzos

Report on the seminar held on 18 November 2006

On 18 November 2006, Federal Union organised an event on the future of the European constitution, which took place at the London School of Economics. The speakers were Andrew Duff MEP (Liberal Democrat, East of England), Wayne David MP (Labour, Caerphilly), and Michael Siebert, member of the political section of the German embassy in London. As the chair Brendan Donnelly put it, they were “three controversial speakers”. The audience consisted of individuals from academia, think-tanks, political organisations and a number of European embassies in London.

The three speakers expressed different and conflicting views on the future of the European constitution, reflecting not only dissimilarities in their political perceptions but also different institutional positionings and responsibilities.

Andrew Duff’s speech

Andrew Duff was the first to speak. It must be emphasised that after the French and Dutch referenda, he became the European Parliament’s co-rapporteur on the EU’s period of reflection.

He started his speech by saying that the period of reflection is coming to an end, giving way to recuperation. He mentioned of two categories of solutions which are discussed at all levels of European governance. The first one is related with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘cut and paste’ solution. In other words, Europeans should keep the essential ingredients of the original constitutional treaty and promise that the fundamental issues of reform will be addressed by the council in the future. The second category, in which Andrew Duff placed himself, proposes the exploitation of the crisis through the improvement and modification of the original treaty. While doing so, the concerns of the people in France, Great Britain and the Netherlands should be taken into account.

While there is the risk of failure for both of these solutions, Andrew stated that the second is most likely to succeed. He argued that Sarkozy’s proposed solution will disturb the fragile, complex and sophisticated consensus the EU-25 achieved while negotiating on the original constitutional text. Furthermore, member states will never agree on what are the essential ingredients of this text. The second solution should maintain this consensus by not altering the text but perhaps by making certain parts of it more visible. This way, the constitutional text will become more visible by the public.

Andrew stated that the following five criteria of substance have to be satisfied while pursuing a solution to the European constitutional crisis:

Economic Governance
Institutions like the Commission and the European Central Bank must be strengthened to manage effectively the economic problems of European citizens.

Social Model
The Lisbon agenda of 2000 should replace the 1956 clauses of the Treaty of Rome in order to achieve a common European social policy.

Environmental Policy
Europe should combat climate change by reforming the Common Agriculture Policy and the Common Energy Policy of the EU.

Enlargement
The fear that the EU is growing in an uncontrolled and unmanageable manner can be tackled by implementing the Copenhagen criteria in a more strict fashion.

Financial Reform
The EU should reform the way it takes decisions on its revenues and expenses. This will require a final solution to the budgetary concerns of France and Britain.

Andrew ended his speech by stressing the importance of taking decisions on the future European constitution with the public opinion.

Wayne David’s speech

The second speaker was Wayne David, who talked about the future of the European constitution from an intergovernmental perspective. He is currently member of the European Scrutiny Select Committee of Westminster, which, by its nature, holds a critical stance towards the legislative output of Brussels.

He advocated that the fundamental reason why the people of France and the Netherlands rejected the constitutional treaty was the reality of “a contrast between the leaders and the led”. He also said that the proposed constitution was far too radical for the people of Europe to accept. What was necessary, therefore, was to build on the existing treaties, aiming to address the issues of ordinary life such as unemployment, climate change and migration. The process of writing and ratifying the constitution was, in his words, an “abstract esoteric debate” which did not concern the general public.

Speaking on the prospect of further European enlargement, Wayne David said that Europe should form a new special association status, which will encourage non-member states to gradually and sincerely apply European norms and values prior to their accession. Not keeping to the strict accession criteria will magnify existing social problems such as migration

As a way of getting out of the current European crisis, he proposed the expansion of qualified majority voting in more policy areas and to let national parliaments play a more active role in European affairs. This, according to his opinion, will bring more accountability in European politics and make the people participate in the European public sphere. Failing to do so will be a victory for nationalism.

Michael Siebert’s speech

Michael Siebert talked about the process that will be followed by the coming German presidency in order to resurrect the European constitution. As a German diplomat he did not comment on issues of political substance.

He started his speech by saying that a new agreement on the European constitution will have to entail a compromise between most of the continental governments, who want to move ahead with it, and the more cautious governments of Great Britain and Poland. He could not see a new constitutional treaty being ratified before the European elections of 2009 and the formation of a new European Commission.

On 25 March 2007, the European Council will be focusing on more pressing issues such as energy, foreign policy, the Turkish accession and Iran. Discussions on the constitution will be of secondary priority. On the same date, Europe will be celebrating 50 years since the Treaty of Rome. The presidency will take this opportunity to remind European citizens of what this treaty has brought to them, which today is taken for granted. It will also remind all European nations of the common values they share.

Approaching the end of the German presidency, the German Chancellor will be feeling the pressure to propose a road-map for the adoption of a new constitution. To do so, she will be meeting with all the European heads of states, trying to reach a compromise. As Michael Siebert put it, “some states will have to compromise more than the others” to achieve a positive outcome.

At the last section of his speech, Michael Siebert expressed the view that the situation in Europe today is still rosy, despite the French and Dutch referenda. Most member states have accepted the original constitutional treaty (18 out of 27, Romania and Bulgaria included). Furthermore, he emphasised the success of the euro, which has become a powerful global currency, despite the doubts many experts in Britain and elsewhere had expressed prior to its launching. He ended his speech by quoting the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset: “Europe is not the problem, Europe is the solution”.

Question Time

In the final part of this event, the guests had the opportunity to ask questions on a number of issues or even make statements.

Some of the questions were related to the future of Britain in Europe. Wayne David said that Britain is not in favour of a two speed Europe. According to his opinion, Europe is a collection of independent nation-states. Consequently, through improved intergovernmentalism, Europe can move ahead. He also said that Gordon Brown, who is expected to be the next British prime minister, is not enthusiastic about Europe but can be persuaded to pursue European policies that promote British interests. On the same issue, Michael Siebert said that Tony Blair is likely to continue to be prime minister during June’s council, which will make easier the work of the German presidency. He was also against a two speed Europe.

Other statements by guests covered the fundamental issue of style of government. Some disagreed with the view of Wayne David that national governments should follow the wishes of the public. On the contrary, they supported that political leaders should lead the people towards the right decision, especially on the issue of the European constitution. Wayne David insisted that in a democracy, the will of the public is the ultimate ruler. Michael Siebert said that it is preferable not to have a referendum when a constitutional treaty has to be ratified but trust national parliaments.

A last thing that was discussed during question time was the nature of the constitutional treaty, which is not exactly a classic constitution but contains elements of an agreement between nation-states. For this reason, a European constitution is going to be a much more complex and challenging project than, for example, the American constitution. While the fathers of the American democracy had in mind a homogeneous group of European settlers when writing their constitution, today’s Europeans have to write a text which will take into account the wishes of a heterogeneous group of Europeans.

Brendan Donnelly found an eloquent way to end this discussion by saying: “My heart is with Andrew, my head is with Wayne and my sympathies are with Michael”.

This report was written by Emmanouil Vrentzos, member of the Federal Union committee. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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