Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Holland' s Nee and the Aftermath: EU Constitutional Process

Many folk are saying that today's Dutch Nee vote will kick the EU's draft constitutional document into touch, and soon kill off the treaty, whilst others are saying, with equal conviction, that the "ratification process" will continue.

The point is that the document will never be "ratified" as it stands - it would need to be ratified by each EU country, and, no matter how cynical one's view of the EU's politicians, such high-handed and open contempt of the vox populi is highly unlikely to appeal even to them.

The more likely outcome is that, after the so-called "period of reflection" which follows on a "period of rejection", the upcoming Council of Ministers will gather for a stormy summit meeting on June 16th (where the EU's budget will also be on the agenda), and call for a wide-ranging review of the whole constitutional process, vowing to "consult the people" and all the rest of it.

If they are brave, they will conduct this in a proper and professional way, rather than letting a bungler like Giscard d'Estaing, or some other faded politician, run the show. A proper review leading to recommendations could easily be set up, using marketing communications techniques used for new product development in the commercial sector.

The constitutional project is essentially an NPD project, one which has been catastrophically badly managed. Giscard d'Estaing and his team screwed up on the content of the document (too wide-ranging and badly written) as well as on the process of formulating it and getting it approved within the EU and the nation states. It has been a story of astounding ineptness, compounded by the disengaged and cloth-eared way the Commission has since communicated what it sees as the benefits of the draft document.

The complexity attendant on developing a new consitution for Europe is not really one of content, but of process. It is not so much the number of countries involved (commercial companies regularly launch new products on a European or global basis), nor the inherent complexity of constitutional matters - but far more because so many different institutions and governments are involved, all of which need to be integrated into the process, each of them adding a new layer of complexity. That is what makes the process less one of answering the question: "What would be the best constitution for Europe?" than: "How can we find a compromise which keeps everyone quiet?"

The key to producing a better constitutional document would be to allow citizens to evaluate different constitutional models, from loose trading federation to centralised state - as opposed to confronting them with a fait accompli, which has been the case this time around. This is relatively unproblematic in itself. It wouldn't require a referendum for each aspect of the constitution, as representative samples of voters would be quizzed in focus group discussions. In this way, a "big constitutional picture" could be built up.

Whether the Council of Ministers and the Commission are prepared to opt for such a process will be clearer after the June 16th meeting.

At the same time, because the current draft document contains so many discrete measures, it is entirely likely that attempts will be made to process key elements into law on a separate basis. This is understandable, as, in rejecting increased centrally-led integration, voters have been forced to reject a host of other measures too, some of which might well have been entirely unexceptionable to them.

The difficulty is that it is almost impossible to separate, say, a technocratic measure designed to "streamline" decision-making in an enlarged EU, from the concomitant erosion of national powers against which voters have voted. Attempts will nevertheless be made to do so.

The best advice one can give the Council and the Commissioners now, especially Margot Wallström, who has the communications brief, is that they should admit that their voters have, completely unexpectedly, transformed the whole political landscape in Europe, but that this represents a fundamental opportunity for the EU to reconnect with voters. The voters, in fact, created a golden chance to remodel the EU's systems and institutions better to reflect and express their political will.

The devil will be in the detail, of course, but if a strong democratic framework is set up, there would be everything to play for.

Guardian Unlimited Special reports EU braced for big no vote in Dutch referendum

Uodate: This post was overly optimistic. In the end the draft constitution, having been declared dead, simply came back under the guise of "the Lisbon Treaty" and will now become law. Thus will end the era of national democracies in Europe.

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