Europe: “at our best when at our boldest”

Federalist Letter to the European Constitutional Convention

Issue number 10, 3 July 2003

Europe: “at our best when at our boldest”

The Convention should not forget why it was established

Even after the champagne has been drunk and Giscard’s hand ceremonially shaken, the Convention remains at work. Perhaps there is something characteristic about the European Union in this. It is not as one would expect, it is more complicated than it needs to be, but somehow it works. And with clearer leadership and more democracy, it would work even better.

The remaining sessions of the Convention are devoted not to the big themes of who decides what within the EU, but to looking at how those decisions should be taken and over what subjects. These are smaller issues, somehow, but that does not make them unimportant. For in the detail here lie the keys to the future success and popularity of the Union. If the voters remain disappointed and disconnected from decisions taken in Brussels, a loss of nerve in the next few days will be a major cause. For the Convention, like the Union as a whole, is at its best when at its boldest.

The quote in the title of this letter is taken from a speech made by Tony Blair to the British Labour party conference in October 2002. We admire boldness. Of course, experience since then suggests that there is a thin dividing line between being bold and being reckless: this Federalist Letter will explore that too.

First, then, the boldness. Why was the European Union set up in the first place? To bring to the peoples of Europe the things that they needed which their individual national governments could not provide. Foremost among these was peace: no country can unilaterally absent itself from the risk or threat of war. This can only be done as a collective project.

Then there are the issues of prosperity and domestic security. The struggle to improve our lives is an ongoing one. It will never be over. European cooperation on immigration and asylum, for example, has now become essential. The European social mix has changed and will go on changing: the EU must ensure that Europe remains a tolerant and humane society. Disjointed and ineffective policies will feed racism. If the Convention achieves nothing else, it must prevent that.

There still remains the shadow of the national veto over foreign policy. The arrangements proposed are too complicated. The European record shows that the policies that work are decided by the Community method – the Commission proposes, the Parliament and the Council co-decide, the latter voting by majority. The policies which fail are dominated by national vetoes and weakened by the absence of a lead role for the Commission.

Too many comments on the draft constitution presented to the summit in Thessaloniki centred on what it did not contain. The retention of the national veto was welcomed because it would stop the Union from acting. That isn’t why the EU was set up, to fail to act. It, like the Convention, was created to change things, to do the things that Europeans needed. It was set up to be bold.

But how to draw the line between bold and reckless?

The whole purpose of the Convention – the reason why it was set up – was to establish a better system of government for the citizens of Europe. The existing EU was not adequate, the Convention should propose improvements. So who better to judge them than the citizens themselves?

The test of whether the proposed constitution will achieve these objectives can only be settled by a European referendum. Refusal to countenance such a referendum flies in the face of democracy.

That is not to say that a referendum should be held whatever the Convention proposes. It may well be that the final outcome from the current round of negotiations – Convention plus IGC – will visibly fail to meet the challenges set. In this case, a referendum on such a flimsy document would be a waste of ballot papers and pencils. It would be better to wait for the next round of reforms – in such a case there would surely not be long to wait.

The need for a European federal constitution is urgent: that need does not go away if this Convention fails to propose one. We hope, though, that the Convention will be decisive enough to make a difference to the future of Europe. Europe will only be built by the bold.

This “Federalist Letter” is issued by the Union of European Federalists as part of the “Campaign for a European Federal Constitution”. For further information and support:
UEF – Chaussée de Wavre 214 d B-1050 Brussels, Tel: + 32-2-508.30.30 – Fax : +32-2-626.95.01, E-mail: – Website: With the financial support, but not representing the opinions, of the European Commission.

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