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Constitution for Europe

Our constitution for Europe
Oct 26th 2000 From The Economist print edition

The citizens of Europe are entitled to expect two things that their governments have so far denied them. The first is a vigorous debate, starting from first principles and with the widest possible participation, about what the future of the European Union should be.

The second is an intelligible account, capable of commanding popular agreement, of the rules by which the future of the Union will be shaped. The right way to meet both needs is to discuss and then frame a written constitution for the EU.

Fear of further, unconstrained but also undefined development of the EU lies behind a lot of European citizens’ suspicion of the Union. So, in an effort to stimulate debate, we have written our own rough draft for what a good new constitution for Europe might look like

Governments have defended their approach to steering the EU: we decide everything; one day youll thank usas strong leadership. Thus, all governments bar Denmarks resisted the idea of putting membership of something as important as monetary union to a referendum.

The euros unimpressive start makes it easier to imagine how great the costs of shallow support, or no support, for an initiative of this kind might be. In a free country, the institutions of the state have their foundations in the consent of the people. If the foundations are shallow, the institutions are at risk of toppling.

But is framing a constitution the right way to prevent this? Certainly, it carries risks of its own. A bad constitution would be worse than none possibly becoming, at one extreme, a burden that made government in Europe unwieldy and good government next to impossible, or, at the other, an engine of undesired and unintended political integration.

Also, it would be entirely in character for Europes governments to adopt a written constitution for the Union, good or bad, without drawing the wider public into debate about it, without seeking even their formal endorsement. So here is a stipulation: any new constitution for the EU should be put to a referendum in each and every country, and be adopted only if passed in every case. That would encourage governments to explain their thinking. And before they could do that, they would need to work out what they actually thoughtwhich would be useful.

What needs to be fixed is not the shape or scale of the Union above ground, but its constitutional underpinnings. First and foremost this means renouncing the guiding concept of ever closer union, an idea enshrined in the Unions pseudo-constitution. Ever closer union, taken seriously, is a commitment to permanent constitutional revolution and Europes leaders do take it seriously. Earlier agreements oblige them to seek further integration, they often point out. End of discussion.

It is too late now, they say, to start asking where or whether integration should stop.

Actually, it is not too late except in the sense that the answer is already long overdue. Europes leaders are right about what the existing treaties say. Therefore, plainly, those agreements must be changed.

A constitution does not need, and should not try, to rule out institutional development; but to commit the Union to never-ending political integration for its own sake, regardless of citizens preferences, is indefensible.

More than merely expunging the idea of ever closer union, however, our constitution seeks to make it more likely that, if further institutional reform is undertaken, it is in response to citizens demands, not in spite of citizens misgivings.

Governments may regard constitutions as instruments by which they rule; a better perspective is to regard them as constraints placed on governments by citizens. In that liberal spirit, our constitution makes it somewhat harder for governments to pursue further political integration.

But is this right? If democratically elected governments wish to pursue deeper integration, why should the constitution aim to inhibit, rather than facilitate? For three main reasons.

One is that Europes governments have amply demonstrated an aversion to democratic accountability: evidently, this virtue needs supplementary assistance.

Second, Europes existing institutions were designed, or have evolved, in ways intended to spur a programme of radical political and economic changethat is, to make the EU a single economic space. This enormously difficult job is done. It is a fine achievement. But now the rules need to be tilted in a new direction that no longer favours radical reform over stability.

The third reason is the most important. Unless checked, deep economic integration creates a natural, but not necessarily desirable, momentum towards deep political integration.

In the single market, governments and officials find it annoying to have a patchwork of different policies spread across the Union. In the name of efficiency, they favour uniformity, coherence, co-ordination and so on. But pressed too far, this improved efficiency comes at a great cost. It drives political decision-making further away from citizens; and it stifles experimentation, discovery and competition.

Europes most exciting opportunity in the years ahead is to let competition among policies flourish inside the single economic space that it has createda possibility largely denied to the United States, with its overwhelmingly mighty federal government. Europe should seize the chance: out of this untidy rivalry could come great things.

Given all this, our constitution aims to make the status quo more difficult to overthrow, and to strengthen the role of national parliaments and Europes citizens in deciding Europes future. The main innovation, apart from trimming the size of the European Parliament and demoting the European Commission, would be the creation of a small second chamber of representatives, the Council of Nations, with members drawn from national parliaments. Its task would be a crucial one: constitutional oversight.

It is foolish to expect too much of constitutions. They can be changed, for one thing, and they are only one of many influences on political change. America reveres its constitution, yet the men who wrote it would surely be astounded by the strength of todays federal government and the comparative weakness of the states. Still, efforts to devise a constitution for the European Union would encourage a searching examination of ideas and purposes, which would be splendid.

And any good constitution makes it harder for governments to ignore their citizens. Europe needs that badly.


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