Another Missed Opportunity?

Article published on April 9, 2003
community published
Article published on April 9, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The alleged role of civil society in the Convention comes down to a mere question of image.

The European Convention, the forum created with the aim of institutionalising the debate over the future of the European Union and possible reforms to its structure has entered the final stage of its work. After airing proposals by citizens, academia, governments, young people and the Convention's 11 thematic working groups, the time has come to take decisions and to draw together the means and objectives of our Community in a coherent form.

A questionable way of working

Reaching agreement is far from easy. In addition to the constant stream of new proposals brought before the Convention over the months, we have seen the varied, and in many cases contradictory views of the 118 individual members of the Convention, each influenced by the particular perspective of the States, parties, working groups and institutions they represent.

In an attempt to bring together the kaleidoscope of opinion representing 'Europe', the Convention's Presidium put forward a project for an EU Constitution on 28 October last year (2002), which is currently being debated by the Members of the Convention. This proposal is divided on a legal basis into two parts; on the one hand grouping together 40 articles dealing with the Union's objectives, citizenship, fundamental rights, competencies, institutions, budget, democracy, external relations and processes of adhesion. A second block, outlining the basis for Community Policy, is contained in 23 articles. At present, not one of the aforementioned proposals has won over the debate, not even those of the working groups. Once again, everything is a matter of dispute.

It was always obvious that this attempt to cover over the cracks would not convince all the Convention's members. What was not foreseen is the fact that more than 1000 amendments have been tabled to only the first articles of the projected Constitution. The working methods of the Convention are based on the idea of consensus. Point are not won based on the number of votes, instead an absolute majority is needed in plenary. Unanimity is not the aim, rather broadly accepted positions. The Presidium groups amendments thematically, article by article, and later, in the plenary session, speaker after speaker defends them. The Presidium is ultimately responsible for finding a point of consensus.

It is not difficult to see why extra sessions have had to be incorporated into the Convention calendar. Not only do the debates draw out indefinitely but there is also a need for a full procedure for political negotiations. By not taking decisions on account of the number of votes, the potential for informal negotiations between Convention members has grown at the same time as the Presidium's role as the final voice in decision-making has been strengthened. Meanwhile the target date for completing the work, at one stage foreseen for this year, has been postponed again and again.

It seems logical to ask questions about the rationale of a system which was called upon to eliminate the failings of the EU but which, in practice, has become little more than a reflection of those very same problems.

The method has been used once before, in a preliminary attempt to overcome intergovernmentalist decision-making. That was the Convention on the Charter of Fundamental Rights which showed up the same failings that we are witnessing now without any sign of improvement.

The alleged importance of citizenship

The Convention model is a mere step away from a governmental decision pursued in the belief that a reform agreed by an absolute majority in this arena of ideologies will be accepted more easily by Member States' governments, whose decision has to be given unanimously. If more critical sectors (such as youth and civil society) are also allowed a voice in the process, success seems assured.

Citizens are party to opinion polls in which their involvement is made to appear crucial. They are not more than details, often trivialised, that make citizens aware of changes that are coming and claim that the opinion of the "people" is essential. Legally neither the opinions of citizens nor even those of the Convention members are relevant. It is more a sounding-out process, a complex and expensive surveying of views through which governments collect existing opinions prior to taking their decision: the only thing, in legal terms, which has value.

A little later than expected, the Convention will end its work by adopting a final text. This version will then be presented by President D'Estaing before the European Council in the second half of this year (2003). According to Article 48 of the Treaty of European Union only the Intergovernmental Conference in 2004 will be competent to adapt this European Constitution. It will be, however, the heads of State and government who once again take the final decision.

The dangers of a referendum

It seems clear that a Constitution for Europe is on the cards. In law, in order to formulate a Magna Carta we need a constituent, perhaps represented by the Convention working strictly within its mandate and by a European people who approve the text by referendum. It seems to me to be doubtful that this final step will be carried out fully. It would be very risky, since European governments might find themselves confronted with the negativity of their people. The nature of current debates indicates that a Constitutional Treaty will be adopted by governments, but will be presented to the European people as the Constitution. At the very least this is a mercenary operation.

Besides the fundamental legal problems which are arising, the principal challenge to be confronted during this process is a political one. The problems to be faced in the Convention in the coming months are numerous and very serious.

I can hardly bring myself to predict what the results will be. Time and again we have failed to create a Europe of the citizens beyond the confines of economics. Within the current international climate it is difficult to conceive of this process taking place again in the near future. I only hope we do not fail this time round.