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A pan-European referendum on the Constitution

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Default profile picture Morag Young

Europe must be reconciled with its citizens. If we have faith in democracy and in Europe, the decision to hold a referendum, the people’s choice, must be taken.

The Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which will begin its work on October 4th with the aim of finishing in December, will have to bring together the aspirations of Parliamentarians and representatives from society, and those of Governments. Thus, the IGC will place the ‘realpolitik’ angle at the very heart of the founder text of a new Europe. Indeed, the Convention progressively inserted elements from governmental delegates in order to transform itself in the spring into a sort of informal IGC. In a similar way, Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s recurrent trips to the European capitals looked like a ‘tour of inspection’ where the ‘red lines’ (points which would not be conceded) of respective Governments were fixed.

Certainly, the IGC, in bringing together Heads of State and Government, who are elected through universal suffrage by the European people, is a product of one form of democracy: representative democracy. Of course, democracy is a tiresome system, so much so, moreover, that according to Rousseau it was only fit for the Gods, and popular wisdom is often unaware of political debates. But, for all that, are these sufficient reasons not to regard Europe as a voluntary movement of progress, by the people for the people that is nourished by the agreement of each individual in order to be defined as an all encompassing whole?

Reconciling politics and citizens

Moreover, the referendum initiative, beyond differences of opinion, disinformation and legal criticisms, moves politics into an unexpected position at the heart of the action. At this key moment in the formation of Europe, politics and action, politics and citizens must be reconciled. A pan-European referendum about membership involving citizens from across Europe will bring what is known as ‘democratic legitimacy’ to the proceedings, something that is all too often forgotten by the political class.

Referendum remains, with popular veto, popular dismissal and popular initiative, the essential medium of a semi-direct democracy. Whether constitutional, legislative or consultative, it takes things a bit further on from individual responsibility and freedom. While it is too often taken over by politics and nourished by disinformation, referendum does humanise politics. It is, thus, a long way from a plebiscite; it is the supreme moment of decision, as the difficulties the French government have had in carrying on after the negative consultative referendums in Corsica and within the EDF (Electricité de France) illustrate.

This reality, as well as the need to put right the more or less hypothetical ‘democratic deficit’, has encouraged numerous members of the Convention to sign a petition for a pan-European referendum proposed by democratic organisations from 22 European countries.

We will lose independence and freedom

Rounding up people from across the political spectrum (Alain Lamassoure – Christian Democrat, Jurgen Meyer – Social Democrat, John Gormley – Green Party, Lone Dybkjae – Liberal Democrat etc) and representing the voices of dozens of European NGOs (such as Civic Participation Society (Bulgaria), The June Movement (Denmark), Démocratieplus (Belgium) etc), this proposal was presented by Othmar Karas at the European Parliament in accordance with article 51 of the treaty. She underlined, in a somewhat incomplete manner, the benefits of such an action and what it would symbolise: ‘heightening European citizens’ awareness of the European Union’s work’, maximal support and participation, democratisation and proximity, transparency and the ‘Europeanisation of national politics and national consultations’.

And this proposal is right on target. Democracy is a fundamentally unstable system because of its need to be re-legitimised through historic discussions about the progress of freedoms. Even so, governments will put forward ‘dilemmas’, ie internal requirements, the national misrepresentation of the European stakes, the risks of one country refusing, legal difficulties. And even if it is right to raise these problems, it would be wrong not to resolve them.

Yes, holding the referendum at the same time as the European elections could lead to debates being focussed on political personalities rather than on the content of the issue at hand. Yes, Germany, Greece and Portugal do not arrange, indeed forbid, constitutional referendums (obligatory or facultative), while facultative referendum is only provided for in a few European constitutions (such as the Greek and Spanish constitutions). Meanwhile, the Polish constitution, in case of refusal, imposes a four-year waiting period. Yes, a European information network as well-rooted as national networks does not exist and disinformation is widespread in newspapers such as The Times who publish without hesitation that ‘it is a German constitution that is emerging. We will have the Bismarck model instead of the Napoleon one. The British Constitution will be lost. We will lose our independence and our freedom.’ (The Times, March 14th 2003)

But it comes down to this: it is a long way from utopias or an under-estimation of these problems; overcoming these obstacles is possible. It is, moreover, necessary. Democracy applies to all of us and is a tool of reflection. It asks questions of us, questions our ideas and nurtures the very ideas that bring us to life. And, consultative referendum is, for example, possible despite the silence of legal texts: Italy, in 1989, used this procedure with regard to the attribution of the constituent powers of the European Parliament.

Constitutions are signed by the people, treaties by governments

It is possible for a referendum not be fixed for the same day as the Parliamentary elections and, this being so, not to constitute “a referendum ‘a la Corsica’ where you punish the government and do not answer the question”, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, in favour of a European referendum, has underlined. It can create a healthy shock and a ‘mass plebiscite’ if it is organised for the same day, at the same time, remembering that ‘European democracy’ is not formed in isolation but thanks to the ‘European people’ when the traditional Community method seems to have reached its limits.

The organisation of such a referendum, legally unrestrictive and requiring a double majority of States (2 out of 3 States) and of citizens (60% of the population), does not betray the duty of a national referendum so that each country can confirm its choice and stay in the European Union.

Thus, as an NGO Europe report (IRI Europe) reminds us, and bringing together all a referendum’s advantages, it would allow the true name of democracy to be reclaimed, an increase in popular support in favour of the European construction process, harmonisation of the aspirations of citizens and governments, and reinforcement of identification and communication between the elite and the countries themselves when constitutions are signed by the people and treaties by governments.

A referendum brings the issue of the nature of democracy and the faith that we put in mankind back to life. Even if men are not Gods, they can attain a certain level of wisdom and become less dominated by inertia and inaction if they want to, and can participate in the construction of their future. Politics has a future. Political will is a choice: let's make that choice.

Translated from Pour une Constitution européenne, un référendum paneuropéen.