"the balance is delicate... there is a risk of it unravelling"

Article published on Oct. 6, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 6, 2003

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Interview with Sir John Kerr, Secretary General of the Convention on the Future of Europe.

Career diplomat and behind the scenes puppet-master, Sir John Kerr is the secretary-general of the Constitutional Convention and, along with Giscard, Amato, and Dehaene, one its key players. Brought in from the British Foreign Office, he has been working furtively in Brussels to bring the European Constitution into being. One week before the start of the Rome ICG that will decide its fate, Café Babel spoke with Sir John and asked his opinions.

Café Babel: One of the innovative features of the Constitutional Convention was that it – in part – broke with the realpolitik and horse-trading of previous EU treaties, attempting to build a genuine civic consensus. However, despite Giscard’s insistence that the treaty be accepted ‘as is’, it is now clear that at the coming IGC certain governments intend to contest certain points of the treaty. In your view, does this represent a failure for the Convention process?

Sir John Kerr: The Convention's draft Treaty was a delicate balance, and the result of 17 months work, in more than 50 days of plenary debate, on 240 Secretariat papers, openly discussed on a website which carried 23,500 documents and was by the end receiving 3,000 hits every day. The Convention consensus has deep roots. Of course it is reasonable and right for governments, though they were present and active in the Convention, to review the text after summer reflection; and there are passages in Part III which the Convention, if given more time, might have improved. But the balance is delicate, and there is a risk of its unravelling if any of the central threads in Part I are pulled out. I believe that member state governments recognise that; and understand the damage an IGC failure would do.

One of the great dangers is that a country might reject the European Constitution. As one member of the Convention put it “If 22 countries say yes and three say no, then we have a problem. Legally we cannot proceed; politically we cannot stop.” If a country rejects the constitutional treaty, as Ireland did with Nice, how will we proceed? Is there a back-up plan?

It's a Constitutional Treaty, not a Constitution. It doesn't claim to draw its legitimacy directly from the grass roots, bypassing states and governments. It sets out the powers which states choose to confer on the Union, and that the Union has no power where states confer none. The position in law is clear: since the Treaty records an agreement between states, of course it cannot come into force until all ratify that agreement.

If most do, but one doesn't, there would be a political question for the European Council to address - as it did for Denmark after Maastricht and for Ireland after Nice. But the risk seems relatively low. Unlike Maastricht and Nice, the new Treaty springs from an open process. The majority of Convention members came from national parliaments, opposition parties as well as governing parties. All Convention texts, and all successive versions of the proposed Treaty provisions, were published. There were no surprises. So why should there be a problem?

In your opinion, will the convention be seen as the final stage in the process of European integration or merely another step forward in achieving ‘ever-closer Union’? Is it possible that in 5, or 10 years time, we could repeat the constitutional convention process?

One should never say 'never'. And most thought the innovation of a Convention a success. But provided the IGC succeeds, there should be no need to repeat the process soon. The stability of a clear, comprehensive, constitutional settlement would be reassuring to citizens.

How have you personally found your work as Secretary-General of the Convention?

It was a challenge and privilege to work for such talented people on a task of such importance for Europe. I was fortunate to lead such an effective Secretariat team, supporting such a remarkable Presidency. But don't exaggerate my role! Secretaries-General are rightly anonymous: sometimes seen, never heard. Their currency is trust; and they need to earn and conserve it by discretion, and use it discreetly.