What is the draft European constitution?

This briefing outlines the origins and content of the draft European constitution, and why it will improve the European Union. The text in italics is intended to help you with public statements, for example letters to the newspapers.

What was the European constitutional convention?

The Convention brought together representatives of member state governments and parliaments from all 15 member states and all 13 applicant states, along with delegations from the European Parliament and the European Commission. It met in public over a period of more than a year to debate the fundamentals of how Europe should be governed, taking evidence from civil society and other interest groups. An open process of this kind is truly unprecedented: previous sets of amendments to the treaties have been prepared by civil servants in private.

The Convention that drafted the constitution was a democratic innovation. It is no accident that such an open process has produced such a positive result. There is a lesson here for Europe.

The fact that it is to be called a constitution is also significant. The word “constitution” has traditionally been associated with the existence of a sovereign state. It can be used in the context of the European Union because the old language of sovereign states is no longer useful in describing Europe. The EU represents a new form of political integration, going beyond the rules of diplomacy and international relations. The best way to think of the EU now is as a new kind of state in its own right, existing in addition to the states that are its members.

Different European countries now have so much in common that a new kind of politics is needed. Future political decisions in Europe should be made in public, through shared democratic institutions. Our economic and social interdependence should be matched by a democratic and political interdependence. That is what the European constitution will do.

What happens next?

The draft constitution has to be submitted to an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) for approval. All 25 member state governments (the present 15 plus the 10 that will join in 2004) are required to agree unanimously to the text. Already some are proposing new amendments.

It is important that the IGC does not try to reopen the debates of the last few months and renegotiate the contents of the draft text. The current draft was the result of long and tortuous discussions: if there were generally acceptable amendments available, they would already have been incorporated.

The British government should support the text of the draft constitution as agreed by its own representative, Peter Hain, in the convention. Any attempts to re-open the negotiations will only make it worse: if one member state tries to change things, they all will. The draft constitution might not be perfect, but politics is the art of the possible.

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that representatives of the member state governments have played a prominent role in the Convention and agreed to the final draft.

It would be wrong if an agreement reached by member state governments in public were to be rewritten by those same governments in private later on. It would make a mockery of all the claims that Europe will be brought closer to the citizens.

How will the draft constitution be ratified?

Once the draft constitution has been approved unanimously by the IGC, it must then be ratified in each of the 25 member states. Each member state will do this according to its own domestic constitution: in some countries, this means a referendum; in others, this means ratification by parliament.

There have been calls for the constitution to be ratified by a referendum here in the UK. Such a referendum would serve two purposes: the formal process of ratification; and the promotion of a debate on the future of Britain and Europe.

British constitutional tradition does not require a referendum for the formal process of ratification. This campaign is about the European constitution, not the British one, so we take no view on whether or not there should be a referendum. The promotion of the debate, however, does not require a referendum: it could (and should) happen anyway.

The draft constitution and the forthcoming enlargement of the EU mark a new state in the development of Europe. No-one should underestimate the importance of these two developments. We need the widest possible debate about what they mean for the future of Britain and Europe. The government does the country no service if it fails to involve the public.

What happens if a member state fails to ratify the draft constitution?

The draft constitution must be agreed unanimously by the governments of all 25 member state and ratified in each one of them. What happens if a country should fail to ratify, for example, if a referendum should vote “no”?

Formally, the existing treaties will remain in force until they are superseded by the constitution. However, the political precedent would clearly support implementation of the constitution. After the Danish “no” to Maastricht in 1992 and the Irish “no” to Nice in 2001, the momentum for ratification was not lost. So much political commitment has been thrown behind the draft constitution that, while it is not possible to say exactly how the political crisis arising from a failure to ratify might be resolved, it is clear that a no vote in one member state will not be enough to preserve the present status quo all over Europe.

The draft constitution is a considerable step towards a federal Europe. The choice is no longer whether or not Europe should go in this direction – that decision has already been made – but whether Britain should be part of it, or whether it should watch the rest of Europe united without us. The interests of Britain and the interests of its people both say that we should be members.

Does it matter that the word “federal” was removed from an earlier draft of the constitution?

A draft put forward by Giscard D’Estaing included the statement that the EU would exercise power “on a federal basis”. Following a meeting with Tony Blair, this phrase was deleted and replaced with the words “in the Community way”. The overall effect of this amendment is almost zero. The only result is to make the British government look pathetic.

For what does it mean to exercise powers “on a federal basis”? It means that there are two (or more) democratic levels of government, each with a direct relationship with the citizen. The federal basis means that European law directly affects individuals and companies in the EU; the alternative (a confederal basis) would mean that European law would only apply to the member states themselves. The phrase “on a federal basis” was included in the draft because it was factually correct. Removing the phrase does not make it any less true.

The government should admit the truth: that the European Union is organised on a federal basis. There is no shock or horror about this. Federalism is the normal basis for organising systems of government in many countries around the world (including even in the UK these days – think about the Scottish parliament). It makes perfect sense to apply this principle in the European Union as well.

Click here for the briefing on: What changes will the draft constitution make?

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