Past the flagpole of a Constitution

European federalists facing a new political reality

, by Alexander Hoefmans

Past the flagpole of a Constitution

Europe has once again arrived at a milestone, this time with the Reform Treaty. And especially in Europe the path towards a milestone represents a checkpoint which allows a closer examination of the state in which the European Union and its institutions find themselves. However, the road has proven strenuous and enduring. This shouldn’t surprise us when looking at what has been at stake. Never before in the history of post-WWII European integration has the European continent engaged in such a fundamental public debate on its nature, at such an enormous scale and through such a degree of public participation.

It is not the intention of this article to scrutinize the fruits which this quasi-Constitutional process has or has not bared. Rather, the course of action taken previously as well as the matter of how European federalist organizations should position themselves in the changed political context will be examined.

Federalist agenda

Amongst these organizations we mention particularly here the Union of European Federalists and their youth branch, the Young European Federalists, which have since long been active and campaigning during and even before the Constitutional debate. Inevitably, stepping into campaign mode and defining strategies and position papers is in itself a confrontational process which forces an organization to reflect on its nature and goals, much as the larger European process which it is trying to influence actually. Changing political contexts therefore pose fundamental challenges to these organizations. Such has been the case during the Constitutional debate right up to the current milestone.

Federalist organizations basically strive for a specific model of government in which a bottom-up approach, or the principle of subsidiarity which states that decisions should be taken as closely to the stakeholders of that decision, is central. Democracy, transparency and multi-leveled governance take center stage for federalists. Translated to the European level federalist organizations strive for an executive government, i.e. the Commission, and a bi-cameral parliamentary system where the current Council of Ministers would siege with only a legislative role in a second chamber. A European Constitution would then engrave these principles and this institutional framework as the true enactment of the European Federation.

Constitutional process

It goes without saying that the Constitutional debate initiated by the Laeken Declaration in 2001 presented European federalists with a unique opportunity to help realize their goals. Even when federalists had long before this launched a campaign for a European Federal Constitution now the political momentum had come to tackle this objective head-on. A European Constitution was at the center of the debate and therefore any campaign in favor had obtained besides ideological also political legitimacy. European federalists were given wings.

Moreover, short of a true Constituent Assembly, the European Convention which was launched by the Laeken Declaration and which was supposed to represent a broad spectrum of stakeholders was in itself already a new milestone in debating the future of Europe. On the fringes a multitude of campaigns was set up by numerous stakeholders. And once the Constitutional Treaty had been concluded in July 2003 and symbolically baptized by the signing of the heads of state in Rome on October 29th 2004 a second phase was launched, that of the ratification process.

Ratification process

This phase represented yet another challenge and opportunity for federalists to see a more controversial principle also within federalist organizations, namely that of direct democracy, put into practice. Vast debates were held on how the Constitutional Treaty should be ratified, either through the respective national parliaments or through national referenda or even a pan-European referendum. As often happens, political reality caught up with us and before we knew it ratification by a mixture of parliamentary debates and national referenda was on its way. Federalist organizations slid into this process and the Young European Federalists for example set up the YES-Campaign to promote the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty irrespective of the means of ratification. Needless to say the European integration process was hijacked after the dual negative outcome of the referenda in France and the Netherlands with a general paralysis on the political scene as a consequence.

So far the path walked by the Union of European Federalists and the Young European Federalists had been sensible and reinvigorating, regardless of the fact that we actually did not obtain our initial goals of having a European Constitution and a pan-European referendum.

Reflection period

The reflection period which was forced upon us all did little to provoke the catharsis which at least officially it was meant to create. Despite a few courageous efforts by several MEP’s and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to take the reigns, the post-referenda debate showed little vision on how to continue. Few, however, gave the Constitutional Treaty a chance of surviving. It is in this context that, somewhat less comprehensibly, the Union of European Federalists and the Young European Federalists decided to launch a campaign to collect 1 million signatures in favor of a pan-European referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. The one-seat campaign launched by the Swedish liberals at the European Parliament and which actually succeeded to collect the full 1 million served as an example. The pan-European referendum campaign proved little successful and today we face yet another reality.

The Reform Treaty provides a new framework which, when applied properly, should facilitate a new impetus to the development of a more ambitious Europe on the political and global scene.

With the Reform Treaty expected to be adopted by the end of the Portuguese EU Presidency, European federalists are visibly unsettled about how to welcome this unraveling of the Constitutional debate. Should we rejoice the strengthening of European integration when arriving at this milestone or should we turn a blind eye to the significance of the progress which has been made after all because we feel the end result is flawed? As a pro-European organization but one with a specific political goal it is easy to be confronted with this dilemma. Nevertheless, with the 2009 European parliamentary elections approaching fast we have little time to reposition ourselves. Here are a few suggestions on how to proceed.

It seems out of the question that European federalist organizations plead for an explicit continuation of the Constitutional debate. As mentioned before, European federalists have been presented a unique opportunity to have a debate on a Constitution in the limelight ever since Laeken. The political momentum, however, has passed and allocating already scarce resources and manpower to campaign for either a new Constitution, a genuine Constituent Assembly this time round or even a pan-European referendum (but on what?) would simply move us to the outskirts of the European political sphere. Can you imagine taking to the streets asking European citizens once again their support for a European Constitution when they’ve just stomached six years of Constitutional debate? And what about the political support needed to carry this demand to the European agenda? The European Parliament might keep the debate alive in theory but MEP’s, Commissioners and national governments will turn to the business of the day once the Reform Treaty is passed, and that business should be making Europe work with the newly presented innovations and opportunities.

What next?

Does this mean that a European Constitution is a lost cause? Should we not continue to fight for a federal Europe? No, by no means can or should we abandon our vision of a federal Europe but it would be wise to adapt our strategy to the changing political context. The Reform Treaty, if all goes well, will be a fact. This Treaty is set to incorporate certain crucial innovations which had already been agreed upon in the Constitutional Treaty. A single legal personality for the European Union, extended qualified majority voting to crucial areas of legislation, a reduced number of Commissioners, the citizens’ petition and a legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights (except for the UK apparently) are some of the innovations that carry approval of European federalists. Whether they are settled in a true Constitution or in a regular Treaty, we cannot ignore their significance in rendering an ever larger European Union better equipped to face its challenges.

Surely good governance is an overarching federalist goal whether it is by guaranteeing the appropriate institutional framework or through sound federalist policies which impose themselves in areas such as environment, energy, judicial and police cooperation.

The Reform Treaty provides a new framework which, when applied properly, should facilitate a new impetus to the development of a more ambitious Europe on the political and global scene. Just because we didn’t manage to obtain a true Constitution and we disapprove of the non-transparent sherpa method which was applied in the run-up to the draft Reform Treaty it would be foolish for European federalists to ignore those major achievements the Reform Treaty does offer. Yes the Reform Treaty is flawed and limited from a federalist point of view, but from a pro-European integration stance it is a crucial step forward and we should therefore welcome its adoption and ratification. We simply cannot afford to stand by and sulk as European history is taking shape. We have to come to grips with the new political reality, reposition ourselves accordingly and swiftly take the lead in shaping the next political debate. We just won’t be able to do it under the banner of a future Constitution and a new institutional framework, for now at least, but rather by focusing on good governance through sound policy. This is what European citizens are now expecting from Europe after a sustained period of internal turmoil and this is where federalists have a clear role to play.


Finally, what can this more concretely mean in terms of a focal point or campaign for the coming years? It has been mentioned before, the 2009 European Parliamentary elections are crucial because they can serve as a catalyst for the new political debate. At the same time the Reform Treaty is expected to enter into force after the elections. These two elements can be combined to set the framework for a campaign focusing on good governance through sound policy. MEP’s should be urged to come forward with a clear European governmental program which they want to see realized during the new legislature. Voters can then clearly identify themselves with a future Europe of their liking, with a possible added bonus of deflecting the electoral campaign from exclusive national debates.

Moreover, the Reform Treaty serves as the perfect alibi to conduct such a campaign because it offers new leverages for reinvigorating the European Union. Or otherwise put, we should also urge MEP’s to present to their voters how they are planning to use the innovations and opportunities of the Reform Treaty to realize their governmental program. And where the European institutions will fail to govern in the interest of Europe the shortcomings of the Reform Treaty will become immediately apparent. And European federalists will be well placed to point out the need for an ever closer federal Europe.

Image: Flagpole, source: Flickr

Your comments
  • On 15 October 2007 at 21:50, by Olivier Replying to: Past the flagpole of a Constitution

    “Surely good governance is an overarching federalist goal whether it is by guaranteeing the appropriate institutional framework or through sound federalist policies which impose themselves in areas such as environment, energy, judicial and police cooperation.”

    Dear Alexander,

    I am sure you are a good federalist. So why do you restrain yourself to the issues Europhobes want to limit the EU’s powers to? If federalists do not say that it is time for a European political nucleus in fields such as defence, diplomacy and the relationships between institutions, who will? If the EU’s missions were limited to collecting litter, would you campaign for a sound, European way of collecting litter?

    I am sad to see that some federalist organisations (such as ’Federal Union’ in the UK) are settling for a weak EU just to avoid the painful issue of a two-tier Europe. But it is an inevitable issue, I am afraid, and one which has little do do with this very disappointing Reform Treaty. It is time to face that future together from Seville to Hamburg and from Antwerp to Naples.

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