What is at stake at the European Summit?

, by Richard Laming

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

What is at stake at the European Summit?

The meeting of the European Council to be held in Brussels on 21/22 June is one of the most important in recent times. Here are three reasons why.

Will there be a constitution?

The former constitutional treaty was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands two years ago, and its ratification since then has been stalled. There has been a so-called “period of reflection”, but rather than simply admiring themselves in the mirror, the national governments have been discussing what to do next.

Some of them have remained faithful to the idea of the European constitution, defending both the need for such a text and also the precise contents of the former constitutional treaty itself. Others have been more willing to abandon one or other (or in some cases both) of these two notions, in favour of something that might be easier to ratify.

In the two days and one night that the summit is scheduled to last, these issues will be argued over again. It is likely that the summit will not reach a concrete conclusion on the final outcome but will agree a mandate for a subsequent intergovernmental conference. That IGC might leave open the final form of the next treaty – whether it is constitutional, institutional, or something else altogether – but it will surely take a lead from the summit. A big decision indeed.

Will there be a referendum?

Not only will the summit have to discuss the text, it will also have to discuss the ratification procedure. It was a big failing of the previous Convention and IGC that they did not define how the constitutional treaty should be ratified. The result was the mess which we are still clearing up now. The summit next week should consider how the next treaty will be ratified: through a European referendum, or through leaving it up to each national government to decide.

There would be clear benefits from agreeing to hold a European referendum. It would force the negotiators in the IGC to think not only about how the EU might function in the future but how citizens might understand and relate to those functions. A major problem up until now has been the democratic deficit: will that deficit continue or will it be fixed? Holding the referendum on a European basis rather than on a national basis will free national politicians from the fear that any referendum would simply turn into an opinion poll on the government of the day. Instead, the citizens of Europe would be given an historic opportunity to pronounce upon their future together: do they wish to share it democratically or not?

Committing to a referendum at the outset of the negotiations would not only give citizens a say on the future of Europe when the referendum is held, but would also ensure that citizens’ concerns were written into the very fabric of the constitution itself.

So, this is the second big decision.

Will there be a campaign?

The last question to be answered is why federalists should take an interest. The federalist commitment to a constitution for Europe is well-known, but it is possible that the summit or the subsequent IGC will reject the idea and opt for something different – and smaller – instead. Maybe federalists should accept that outcome now.

I don’t think so. For if the federalists do not voice their ideas about the future of Europe now, when the heads of government are gathering together specifically to discuss it themselves, when will they? A summit or an intergovernmental conference may seem rather remote, but for a federalist that is an encouragement, not a deterrent. A federal constitution for Europe would replace summits and IGCs with open, democratic processes where the decision-makers were clearly and publicly accountable for their actions. Arguing for change is a noble cause.

Others say that we do not know what the IGC will propose – a constitution that requires a referendum or something else that does not – and therefore we should not demand a referendum until we know whether the outcome of the IGC is significant enough to deserve one. This is the argument followed by the Dutch government, for example, and is what applies under Danish constitutional law.

The federalist campaign says that this is putting the two notions – constitution and referendum – the wrong way round. Establishing the expectation that there will be a referendum will shape the negotiation about the text. Let us put the involvement of the public before the work of the civil servants and negotiators. If you are looking for a simple statement of the federalist case, you need look no further.

Image: EU summit, source: Flickr.

Further reading:

- Come on you Reds by Richard Laming at the Federal Union blog

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