What is Constitutional Treaty? Part I

What is Constitutional Treaty 1

French and Dutch voters earlier this year – in a referendum – rejected the proposal for a new constitutional treaty for the EU. The rejection has created a crisis mood in some, joy in others. As if this were not enough, budget cuts between EU countries intensified the crisis.

  • Why was the work on the Constitutional Treaty started?
  • How important is the Constitutional Treaty for EU cooperation?
  • What consequences can it have if the Constitutional Treaty is not implemented?

2: Why a Constitutional Treaty?

Since the establishment of the European Community (EC) in 1957, European co-operation has become increasingly extensive. This has happened through two parallel processes – geographical expansion and political-economic integration. With the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, a political union (EU) was established, and on 1 May 2004, the EU was enlarged to include the current 25 members.

Despite this rapid development, the EU institutions have not yet changed significantly. Although some institutional changes were implemented with the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 and the Treaty of Nice in 2000, these were seen as insufficient as the EU was facing its biggest enlargement ever – 10 new member states. The Heads of Government therefore agreed to set the framework for a broader discussion on how the EU should be easier to understand, more efficient and more democratic. One year later, the Heads of Government decided at the EU Summit in Laeken (2001) to convene a convention (an advisory assembly) to prepare a proposal for a constitutional treaty for the EU.

Since the beginning, EU co-operation has been regulated through treaties negotiated by heads of state and government behind closed doors at intergovernmental conferences (IGC) (cf. overview of the treaties). However, EU leaders have acknowledged that this form of negotiation is unsatisfactory. The text prepared by the Convention was therefore created through an open process with broad participation.

3: Open process

The Convention consisted of 105 members with representatives from national parliaments, the governments of both member and candidate countries, the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Assembly was tasked with answering mainly three main questions about the future of the EU: How can the EU project and its institutions be made more accessible to the citizens of the member states? How should an enlarged EU be structured to prevent the Union’s institutions from being paralyzed after enlargement? How can the EU’s common foreign and defense policy be coordinated and made more unified?

The Convention began work in March 2002, and at its last ordinary joint meeting in June 2003, the proposal for a Constitutional Treaty was unanimously adopted. The Italian Presidency was then given the task of chairing the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC according to Usvsukenglish) at which the Member States were to negotiate until the final text. The political agreement reached by the parties at the EU summit on 18 June 2004, then formed the basis for the final Constitutional Treaty.

4: What’s new?

In many ways, the text was a cleansing of already adopted EU rules (acquis communautaire), although it also contained some innovations. Some of the most important new proposals were to:

  • replace the EU Presidency (which currently rotates between member states for 6 months at a time), with a permanent president elected by the member states for five years at a time.
  • give the EU its own foreign minister who is tasked with consolidating the member states’ foreign policies.
  • reduce the number of EU Commissioners so that Member States have only one Commissioner each.
  • remove the right of veto in several political issues so that qualified majority decisions become the main rule in the (Ministerial) Council.
  • change the way qualified majority decisions are calculated so that proposals are adopted if they are supported by a majority of EU countries, which at the same time represent at least 60% of the EU population.

5: The ratification process

Although the Heads of Government adopted the Constitutional Treaty at the June 2004 summit, the text must be ratified (finally approved) by all member states before it can enter into force. Some countries have chosen to let the national parliament vote on the proposal. Others have chosen to have referendums (see map).

On 29 May and 2 June 2005, such events were held in France and the Netherlands. Both resulted in a clear no: 55% of French and 62% of Dutch voters rejected the draft constitutional treaty.

When such a large proportion of the population in two member states rejects the draft constitution, this is a clear signal to European political leaders that the integration process is either going too fast or that it is going in a direction that the people do not want. It has been argued that there are mainly three groups of no-voters in the Netherlands and France: those who support the political outer wings; protest votes against incumbent government; and those who voted out of fear of increased financial uncertainty. Of these three, the last group was the dominant one. In short, we can say that it was mainly those who feared increased unemployment, labor market reform, labor immigration from the East, globalization and privatization as a consequence of enlargement that rejected the proposal.

Many have claimed that the debate in both France and the Netherlands was less about the text of the constitution itself and more about the development of the EU in general. While some voters are skeptical of the EU as such, there were also several EU supporters who voted no. In France, most of these were Social Democratic voters who believed that the EU favors a free market at the expense of social rights. France has over 10% unemployment, and many feared that enlargement would create greater competition for jobs through increased labor immigration from new member states or through French companies establishing themselves in the new member states due to cheaper labor there.

Thus, it may seem that the result of the French and Dutch referendums was first and foremost a protest against enlargement – both the one that has taken place and future enlargements. In particular, the possible incorporation of Turkey seems frightening to many.

What is Constitutional Treaty 1