18th Dec 2018


Send another Jumbo to pick up the parliament

  • "The plane is heavy, with an immense load of constitutional freight, there aren't very many people aboard" (Photo: Airbus)

It may have taken a long time, but the EU's constitutional aeroplane is now fully loaded. Reflection is over, the baggage is on board, seat belts have been tightened and we have received permission for take off. Sitting in the captain's seat, Mrs Angela Merkel has made the imminent departure announcement, turned on to the runway and banged the throttles home. We're off!

Like a heavily laden 747 the ship is now lumbering forward. With luck and a fair wind the revived constitution should have picked up sufficient speed by next June for the enterprise to take off. Sometime in 2009 it should reach its final destination - ratification. That is anyway what some of us hope.

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Mrs Merkel's announcement to the European Parliament this week that the show was on the road was business like. As speeches go it was modest enough. Grand declarations - here one is reminded of Tony Blair's revolutionary speech to the Parliament before the British Presidency - are not her style. But the constitutional plane is now moving. There was no need to say more. Nevertheless, not everyone is entirely happy.

Constitutional freight

To continue the analogy, although the plane is heavy and lumbering, with an immense load of constitutional freight, there aren't very many people aboard. Those that are represent Europe's member states. Indeed, there is a large group of people (who look as though they should be occupying the roomy economy section in the rear) who are still waiting on the tarmac, suitcases in hand, scarcely able to believe that the plane is taking off without them. Some of them are quite cross about it. They, of course, are Europe's Parliamentarians.

Mrs Merkel is obviously seized of the advice 'who travels fastest travels lightest,' or words to that effect. Anyway, she believes that the fewer seats around the negotiating table the better. Certainly she does not wish to encumber herself, at this initial delicate stage of negotiation, with the 785 strong Parliamentary rag, tag and bobtail. Is she right? That is the question.

Her co-pilot in this aerial enterprise, Commission President, Mr Barroso, made an announcement of his own. He outlined the principles that he (and no doubt Mrs Merkel too) think should go in to the Declaration that will mark the EU's 50th anniversary in March and which need to be agreed by all 27 member states.

The idea is that a grand reaffirmation of European principles will serve to focus the minds of the more sceptic of European states on the need to carry forward the process of European construction and hence provide new impetus for the constitutional project.

Mr Barroso suggested five principles: Solidarity; Sustainability; Accountability and Security. The promotion of these four around the world constituted the fifth.

All are worthy and uncontroversial - a European species of Motherhood and Apple Pie. But one wonders if the list is not really two olives short of a picnic. Indeed one wonders whether the list isn't two Fortnum and Mason hampers short of a picnic.

For instance, there is no reference to the admittedly tricky question of what may constitute the eventual borders of the Union, whether one takes those borders to represent the physical extent of the Union, or the degree of integration - a rather important matter to many citizens.

Ever closer union

Back in 1957 the founding fathers had the courage to sketch in concepts like 'ever closer union.' Whether you liked the phrase or not (and many didn't) there was no denying its aspirational force.

But even this omission pales into insignificance beside the absence of any reference to democracy and countries working together in partnership under the rule of law.

To be fair, Mr Barroso did say in his preamble that 'a Europe built on citizens' consent has solid foundations. A Europe which does not work for that consent is built on sand.' But that makes it even stranger that be should exclude a democratic reference from his list.

And even stranger still that Mrs Merkel and the German Presidency are now seeking to exclude the Parliament from the constitutional negotiations.

One does not have to endorse the view of that erstwhile revolutionary, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now vice-president of the Greens, to the effect that the Parliament is a 'bright light chamber as opposed to the dark chamber of the Member States in the Council,' to fear such exclusion is likely to bring more problems than it solves.

For it is extremely difficult to see how any revised constitution (and Mrs Merkel wishes to keep as much of the existing text as possible) can be ratified without referenda, probably in eight member states. Ms Ségolène Royal, the socialist contender for the French Presidency, has confirmed that she would offer one.

Whatever compromise may be struck between governments, and however much Mrs Merkel herself may detest referenda, ratification will ultimately therefore lie in the hands of voters. Without ratification, even the most elaborately revised Constitution will be no more than dead trees.

Democratic ratification has therefore to be considered in every line of every discussion. The more that democratic influence can be brought to bear through the involvement of the elected Parliament the more likely it is that ratification will succeed.

Front line campaigners

Secondly, some countries (including France if Ms Royal wins) will probably hold referenda on the same day as the elections to the European Parliament in 2009. That would make sense. Another reason to have Parliament's involvement now. It is their members that will be in the front campaigning line.

Thirdly, Parliaments have a long history of causing trouble if excluded from deliberations that they believe are their right. So the potential for disruption will be less if they are included. Readers will remember President Johnson's famous phrase about the performance of sanitary activities inside or outside tents.

But fourthly, and perhaps most important of all, the Parliament should be involved simply because it is right to involve the elected European institution in the preparation of a constitutional revision that will affect it deeply. The European stool has three institutional legs; take away one and the edifice becomes unstable.

With the recent election of Hans-Gert Pöttering to the Parliamentary Presidency and with Martin Schultz the head of the European Socialist opposition, there ought to be a close and felicitous link between the German Presidency and their Parliamentary countrymen. It is not too late for Mrs Merkel to send another Jumbo to pick up the stranded MEPs. She should do so.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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