14th Aug 2022


Enthusiasm and frustration in Europe

  • "The European constitutional process has not ended – on the contrary, it has only just begun" (Photo: Thomas Hug)

EU leaders are still licking their wounds after their attempt to woo the voters was spurned at the ballot-boxes in France and the Netherlands.

The only thing the heads of state and government will be able to do at their summit meeting in mid-June will be to agree on extending the ‘period of reflection' on the European constitutional process by another twelve months.

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It will not be until after next year's elections in France and the Netherlands that the member states' leaders will consider how the contest for power in Europe begun in 2001 can be resumed.

Daring to go for greater democracy

2001 was the year in which the rejection of the Nice Treaty by the fundamentally pro-European Irish had persuaded the Laeken summit to try bringing more democracy to European politics.

The constitutional underpinnings of the now very powerful and important European Union were to be drawn up by a convention dominated by members of the European and national parliaments – instead of being decided by a relative handful of political leaders behind closed doors.

The Convention carried out its work so well that at the next inter-governmental conference the member states – the erstwhile "masters of the treaties" – did everything they could to put a brake on the democratic momentum that had been generated.

In place of the proposal - endorsed by a majority in the Convention - to hold a Europe-wide referendum on the same day, the member states proposed an uncoordinated two-year ratification process.

It was apparent that many leading politicians in the EU institutions and the member states were less than enthusiastic about the Convention's clear commitment to a strengthening of the political powers of the EU citizens.

Neither the 300-plus pages of the ‘constitutional treaty' – the end-result of years of negotiations – nor the subsequent ratification process, which was dominated by national considerations, met the heightened expectations which had been engendered.

The fall-out came in the form of the French and Dutch ‘No' to the treaty a year ago.

No appetite for a new start

The extended period of reflection on the EU constitutional process, which is being recommended by the Commission, shows that most leading EU politicians are not only deeply frustrated at the wide-ranging public scepticism about ‘their' project, but they also appear to have neither the will nor the energy to draw the lessons from their mistakes and to accept the citizens of Europe as equal partners in the European political process.

While Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and prime ministers Tony Blair (UK), Anders Fogh Rasmussen (Denmark) and Goran Persson (Sweden) would prefer to bury the idea of the constitution as soon as possible, other leaders such as Finland's Martti Vanhanen and Germany's Angela Merkel are clinging to the failed constitutional project.

The only one brave enough to propose an entirely new start – which would include the possibility of a concluding Europe-wide referendum – is Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, Mr Barroso's predecessor as commission president.

We have ways of making you happy

So it appears that the EU leaders will have to receive a dose of the same medicine which they themselves have continually handed out to their own citizens over the past several decades: "We know what is best for you and if you don't like it, we will have to force it upon you".

‘We' in this context now refers to all those Europeans who take seriously the repeated promises of a more democratic, citizen-friendly European Union; who demand greater rights to be involved in decision-making and who will make good use of such rights.

Last year's intense debates on the EU constitution proved that lots of people are keen to continue the struggle to secure a more democratic share of power.

Initiative committees across Europe have already begun to activate the initiative right of one million citizens, as proposed in the constitutional treaty.

For example, there is an initiative aimed at ending the vastly expensive use of Strasbourg as a second venue for the European Parliament; one for the introduction of a European statute for NGOs and other associations; and another for the reform of EU policy on nuclear power.

Citizens have also taken it upon themselves to ensure that the new EU initiative right is formulated in as democratic a way as possible and have launched the "Initiative for the Initiative".

It's very clear that the European constituent process has not ended – on the contrary, it has only just begun!

The author is president of the Marburg-based Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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