Wrong text for a European constitution

20 October 2003

Wrong text for a European constitution

True constitutions have always resulted from discord, from angry citizens seeking to put an end to the omnipotence of their rulers. In the case of the EU constitution, this is not the case. The citizens, who do indeed want to see European co-operation to address trans-frontier nuisances and solve large-scale common problems, have never demanded the forming of a superstate with its own currency, military force and constitution.

by Erik Meijer, MEP for the SP (Socialist Party of the Netherlands), United Left Group (GUE-NGL)

The idea for such a constitution has certainly often been propagated by various people involved with the EU-level of politics. Years ago Euro-MPs from different tendencies declared it a scandal that the superstate-in-the-making had no constitution other than a collection of treaties agreed by states during half a century. Swapping this for a handy reference work, grouped by subject rather than by date of adoption, would be an improvement all round. In addition, some wanted to offer a public largely indifferent to the EU something attractive that people could see as an extension of their rights beyond those granted by existing treaties and national constitutions.

Had there been no major problems amongst the elite, there would now be no project for such a constitution. The governments of big member states want more influence, at the cost of smaller member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament. Before the coming increase in the number of small countries from ten to nineteen, they are attempting to secure their position. Their definition of “governability” is, above all, to ensure that Chirac, Schröder, Blair, Berlusconi, Aznar - and shortly also Kwasniewski or his successors – become and remain the real bosses of the EU.

Upgrading of the treaties, as they bear upon governmental structures, to the status of a constitution offers an immediate chance to attach to it the EU Charter of Basic Rights. That product of an earlier convention has, since its proclamation at the Nice Summit in 2000, still failed to achieve any serious status. Embracing duplicates of national constitutions and the Council of Europe’s European Declaration of Human Rights, it is aimed more at placing the EU itself in a good light than at solving any of the real problems of EU citizens.

Renouncing national political independence is a painful process that it is best hidden from the public. The EU appears ever more like the US, with one currency, one foreign policy, a common military, the right to determine and lay down the duties of the member states, and a common constitution. The only positive differences are that over here all the member states are allowed to maintain their own language of administration and education and that they will not be punished by military invasion should they attempt to secede. Although this federation, which we are not allowed to call such, is reaching ever more deeply into the internal politics of each member state, these nevertheless symbolically retain their own national UN seats, foreign ministers, heads of state and constitutions. Because of this, this single federation shows 25 separate faces when it deals with the outside world. The aim of creating an EU president and a co-ordinating EU foreign affairs minister would be to force unity in the face of this.

The planned constitution, just as is the case for many national constitutions, is full of wonderful things which the SP would be only too happy to endorse. Examples include a high level of environmental protection, a number of socially progressive-sounding points and the rejection of the death penalty and discrimination. More far-reaching formulations in the form of basic social rights, which could actively protect people against unequal treatment, poverty, homelessness, illness, ignorance and isolation, were alas not incorporated by the two preparatory conventions.. But even in this feeble form, the more attractive parts of the constitution would have a role to play in the defence of rights by interested organisations and individuals

Judging this constitution, however, is not principally about the nice things that might be found within it, for these are not the reasons why it was written. The really hard points are different altogether: the confirmation of the role of the Council, the integration of the whole of the EU into NATO and the fixing of the capitalist character of the EU economy. The most striking aspect of the first provisional version was the combination of the authoritarian features of the French and German systems of government: a powerful president together with a powerful senate composed of representatives of the member states. This president will probably be somewhat less all-powerful than Giscard d’Estaing wanted. The continuing upward revaluation of the role of the national governments will be confirmed. In the original European Communities they had above all the role of negotiating delegations, but since the demand by French President Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s, the position of the Council has become ever more durable and important. It is not the national parliaments but rather the governments which must attend to national interests, with the result that behind the scenes they have a great deal of freedom to defend interests and make compromises which are not those which could be defended or agreed to by those parliaments. I have always argued that the Council should be abolished and national parliaments accorded the right of veto when it comes to the application of non-fundamental EU decisions. These possibilities would end were this constitution to be adopted.

The provisional constitution mentions emphatically, and several times, a connection with NATO, and through that the common interest of EU and US. For a militarily neutral position outside NATO, such as that enjoyed to date by Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Cyprus and Malta, there will soon be no room. All member states will become jointly politically responsible for military operations, even if the member state in question has decided to send no soldiers. The model of the position of the Netherlands during the Iraqi War, to give political support but no military assistance, will soon be the only possibility for those wishing to remain on the sidelines. It is not, then, simply a matter of common defence of each others’ territory against invasion from without, but also of - albeit perhaps not together with the US - the right to take action outside the territory of NATO or the EU. According to the provisional constitution it might even concern the promotion of the interests of the Union, which could lead to a return to the use of war as a political instrument, to a militarisation of the kind of which, for a long time, we thought we had seen the last.

The constitution protects freedom for enterprises and ’free, unrestricted competition’. What this means in neoliberal Europe has in recent years become ever more clear. Basic services in public transport, post, energy and telecommunications are no longer seen as common problems to be addressed communally, but as a sector of the economy pure and simple. The Lisbon Summit in 2000 encouraged the selling off of such services to major international corporations. Through the compulsory tendering of services which were formally the responsibility of the state or public authority, it has also become necessary for the remaining public services to compete with others. This means that sooner or later they will disappear, because they are small, caring and attached to a particular region, and deliberately not equipped to deal with the risks of operating in competition with others.

This constitution is in this respect no different from that of Cuba or the former Soviet Union, in that it stipulates the form that the economy will permanently take and prevents any change being made to it by democratic decision. Striving for socialist common ownership of the means of production will become unconstitutional within the EU, as earlier predicted with some enthusiasm by a representative of the right in the European Parliament.

The SP has never been convinced of the need for a true EU constitution. This sort of large-scale top-down regulation could stand in the way of the kind of small-scale democracy, with the greatest possible popular involvement, which we would like to see. This inflexible instrument cannot quickly be adapted to new popular aspirations, needs or insights. But in our final judgement, it counts whether the content of such a constitution represents an improvement in comparison with the current situation. This text, which clears the way for capitalism, militarism and governmental structures which will continually hinder the working of parliamentary democracy, is certainly no such thing. Moreover, the biggest part of the constitution consists of a hardly official "Part III" that was not mentioned in the preparatory convention. Rejection of the main points of this constitution will in practice only be possible if first all the member states leave and begin anew. If Europe must indeed have a constitution, this is the wrong text.

Over a question of such importance the voters of every member state must have the right to express their views directly. In a number of member states a referendum has already been authorised. Unfortunately this will not give the voters the right to amend the proposal or choose an alternative text, but only to give or withhold permission for their member state to sign - just as if they were being asked about the principle of a constitution, rather than its content. If one or more member states were obliged to reject the proposed text, their voters would be making a better sort of constitution possible.

Erik Meijer is a member of the European Parliament’s Transport and Environment Committees and was the Rapporteur for (member responsible for preparing) the Parliament’s report on liberalisation of public transport. This article is translated by Steve McGiffen from the original, which appeared in in Europa in Beweging, 24/4 (2003)

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