European constitution – a personal view

Satish Desai

Satish Desai

By Satish Desai


During my visit to the USA, I had a short discussion with a Senator, who felt strongly that Europe could not be a “State” and rejection of the so-called constitution by French and Dutch people should not have come as a surprise. Leaving aside the thought that an American politician may easily feel this way, I could appreciate two points that arose during the conversation. First, the coming together of the USA was not so difficult because most of the states had not strongly developed their identities during the process of formation of the Nation. On the other hand, European countries have a long history and separate identities. While the leaders and politicians may think differently, people of some countries may look upon the constitution as something that would deprive them of their past and individualism. Second, there is a tendency to decentralise among constituents of various conglomerates at present rather than any real will to joining together among different countries, following virtual disappearance of the military danger from the Russian Empire. Even the concept of the USA as a “melting pot” is giving way to the realisation that the different people in the USA have retained their identities over the years and that the USA should be better described as a “salad bowl”.

I understand that the European Union is intended to create a body that will result in division of powers between the body and individual states, whereby it will achieve various objectives far better than the individual states could do on their own. However, the present position shows that the individual states may have common objectives in principle but they have evolved their own systems for achieving them with large variations in emphasis and methods to suit their own traditions and local practices. Furthermore, some issues have to involve not only the governments but also many powerful and international non-governmental bodies, e.g. issues such as environment, carbon emission, global warming, etc. Any drive towards a rigid constitution for the European Union may not, therefore, bring about the desired effect.

After all, the federal idea had influenced the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, with an objective to make recurrence of wars virtually impossible. Following clearing away of the clouds of any military conflicts, further advances towards uniting of Europe have succeeded in some fields, e.g. common court of justice, free trade, etc. Other advances, in the fields of currency, foreign policy, European army, etc, have met with significant obstacles at every step, which have been at best patched up superficially by well meaning political leaders. Their efforts may have appeared to work in the short term, but an attempt to take larger steps, such as having a rigid constitution and fast-track enlargement of the Union, have not met the approval of people of countries like France that have belonged to the heart of the project from its early days.

It is most desirable to have harmony and unity among European countries, beyond any doubt. All the same, question of the extent and rigidity of such Union must now be examined with a fresh approach and with removal of any layers of past experience that might mask basic issues. Any attempt to ignore the current setback, howsoever inconvenient it may be to the people in power, could only benefit those who oppose the concept of European Union of any sort. Europe cannot really afford any further distancing of the people from the leaders, apparently governing Europe through non-elected bodies.

At present, there are many treaties (Rome, Nice, Amsterdam, etc.), which appear to combine fundamental provisions with technical or procedural provisions. However, essential provisions appear to be scattered through different treaties. It is essential to have a documented treaty, therefore, which will eliminate redundant clauses and rearrange provisions in a logical manner, with due regard to the importance of fundamental objectives of the Union.

Various alternatives should be considered in preparing the treaty document, including a form of framework of basic principles and recommended procedures for their application, which could effectively and gradually bring the countries together without initially enforcing any rigid and common legislative procedures. People may disapprove rigid procedures, as they are quite likely to clash with traditions, local conditions and practices that have served the local communities well for providing their needs and would not have been harmful to the neighbouring countries. The Union should trust member states and develop trust among member states, so that everyone would know what is expected of them without instructing them about how to comply with the principles. The Union has indeed been associated in the past with some odd directives about shapes of bananas, storage of food and sizes of vegetables, quite unnecessary and irritating for the common people.

The Union should also kerb enthusiasm of leaders to expand Europe too quickly. People may react with apprehension if many other countries were to join the Union in a short time and if they have ideologies significantly different to those of the existing members of the Union.

I wish to list some basic principles, perhaps not exclusively, in their order of importance.


The Union was founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. I believe that the European Court of Justice has been quite effective in its contribution towards fulfilling these objectives so far. The Court has over-ruled some decisions of courts in the United Kingdom, which have not met with any serious dissent or opposition so far. The judges are invariably well qualified and with their integrity beyond any doubts. The new treaty should provide for appointment of the judges by the elected Parliament for a sufficiently long term, maintaining a combination of old and new, so as to benefit from experience as well as new talent.

It is heartening to note that the Member States are responding to the threats of insurgency and terrorism as common issues, even if they are more hurtful to people outside their territories. It is possible to extradite a suspect in lesser time than before, e.g. the present case of a suspect in Italy. However, a future treaty must make it possible to reduce the duration even more, to assist speedier actions against the terrorist rings, trusting the human rights procedures in the affected country to be just as effective as their own.


Security is a human value that overlaps with freedom, order (social and political), solidarity, etc. This applies more readily for a Nation where people have a sense of oneness that is psychological and born out of commonness of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, history, etc. While it is too much to expect all these attributes in a group of countries, where the territory under consideration is much larger than that of a single nation, some common basis and factors must exist in the group if any common treaty is to succeed.

Nationhood has three main characteristics – sovereignty, territory and population. Even with the democratic governance of all European countries, allegiance of people varies from the British system of monarchy at one end to republicanism or “popular sovereignty” in France at the other. There are no real geographical boundaries between countries like France and Italy, where people in bordering towns are bonded together with marriages, local customs and dialects. The UK, Ireland and Scandinavian countries have been physically separate from the mainland Europe, and they may have closer ties with other nations like the USA than with countries in southern Europe.

It is not impossible to have a federation of nations, in spite of some differences as noted above. Jawaharlal Nehru often quoted the concept of “unity in diversity” in recognition of national identities in India. However, European oneness, or at least oneness of the UK with Europe, appears to have some problems of different nature compared with those in India or the USA. These differences are derived from differences in the national interests within the context of core values. For example, the UK has modernised the work practices and reduced dependence of working people on the state in many fields, e.g. subsidising of production, which has led to debilitation of production sector including farming and mining. The European treaty could seek to improve upon this situation in the context of the Union as a whole. People should have the confidence that basic utilities of reliable quality will be available to them, without having to depend on import from elsewhere, e.g. food, clothes, energy, etc. Common Agriculture Policy may not be very popular in the UK but its basic objective must be understood and supported judiciously wherever it could be really effective. Excessive dependence on services sector and weakening of production sector would not serve the long-term interest of societal security.

National security is often understood as the protection of core values through use of the national power. It includes many dimensions – military, political, economic and socio-cultural dimensions. Perhaps the military dimension has reduced considerably, as far as loss of life due to international armed conflicts is concerned. Loss of life is still evident, however, attributable to terrorism and insurgency. Urgency for measures to eliminate these problems is different in the UK and mainland Europe, since the UK government has participated in war against Iraq. This imbalance can only be addressed through gradual strengthening of common global policies, howsoever difficult they may seem at the present.

It is difficult to address economic dimension, primarily because of the dominance of multi-national business organisations, global interdependence of commerce and sensitivity of national economies to policies and economy of the USA. Some basic issues like the funding for functioning of the Union have created problems between the UK and other countries. Any move towards “European taxation” seems impractical at present but it appears to be the final solution in the long-term interest of the Union.

Socio-cultural or societal security is closely related to influence of large-scale immigration of people into a society. If the European Union were to be enlarged suddenly, it may present problems to societal security, as people in the UK and France are experiencing with East European workers, e.g. construction workers and plumbers. Furthermore, with Turkey or Bosnia admitted in the Union, European people may have to deal with problems caused by influx of people with ideologies drastically different to their own. This should not be mistaken for racism, since many Bosnians and Turks would have fair skin and they may not look different on the streets of Europe. In this context, one could understand the sentiments in France, which tend towards reluctance to expand the Union too soon and beyond certain limits.

Foreign Policy

This must be the most difficult aspect of any treaty, owing to diverse relationship of Member States with other countries outside Europe. The UK has a long history of friendship with Commonwealth countries, especially with India and the West Indies. It would be a pity if a change were brought about in such relationship through any European treaty. The European treaty should allow such links with the world, as long as they do not seriously harm European interests in general, which would seem most unlikely. It is also worth noticing the progress made by India in the fields of economy and technology and India’s position and influence in Southeast Asia. Europe should have a foreign policy that could reach out other countries and not be limited to the short-term interests of countries within Europe.


It is indeed not practicable to speculate about the direction that may be taken for progressing with European Constitution or a treaty. However, it must be hard to sustain any failure of the nature similar to that of the rejection of the constitution by people of France and the Netherlands. Such rejection may strengthen the hands of Euro-sceptics and discourage marginal Europhobes from appreciating the merits of the project of European Union. Furthermore, European Union must have a treaty, which will take logical account of the objectives and which will replace the existing treaties.

It is possible that the treaty could effectively be a flexible one, with adequate transparency to provide clarity of objectives and principles supplemented by recommendations for their applications. The document must aim at making Europe democratic and efficient, and without any unnecessary expenditure and bureaucracy. Most important, the treaty must be supported by the Member States, with a belief that it will add to the quality of lives of their people and recognise the national core value systems of politics, economy, society and culture. The treaty should not seek to interfere with any aspects that contribute to the well being of people of a member state unless they may cause inconvenience to any other state, which must seem very unlikely. The treaty should also be an out-going document, which could build on good relationship with other countries, such as the UK, so that many of the European Union objectives can be met in collaboration with the rest of the world.

Satish Desai is a member of the Committee of Federal Union. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. 2 August 2005.

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