The Convention is failing to bring democracy to the European Union

Federalist Letter to the European Constitutional Convention

Issue number 9, 12 June 2003


For all the study of democracy around the world, it is not often that one gets a chance to watch it grow. The Convention has been a rare example of a democracy in development. It has proved how important a vision is in making democracy flourish.

That vision has been largely absent from the later proceedings of the Convention. In time, that is something that the citizens of Europe will regret. Some of us are regretting it already. We started out with hopes for a new future for the European Union. There was a demand for democracy and support for subsidiarity.

The unification of Europe (how we prefer that phrase to “enlargement of the EU” – let’s start from the continent, not the institutions) is an event of truly historic significance. We should not be afraid of, in fact we should expect, political reforms of a similarly historic nature.

Sadly, the Convention looks as if it will not deliver.

There is a striking contrast with another part of the world that has undergone a similarly historic transition: post-apartheid South Africa.

The eyes of the world had been on that country for many years. Support for change was widespread. Indeed, your present author stood outside Barclays Bank with a placard and gave out leaflets at Shell petrol stations.

And what was the demand? Democracy. And what did that mean? One person one vote, on a common voters’ roll. That second point is important, as I will explain.

There was understandably a fear at the time that there would be an attempt to deflect democracy by creating different categories of citizenship for different ethnic groups, each of which might have different political rights. (The transitional arrangements in Zimbabwe had included this.) The democratic forces resisted this suggestion.

They were determined to ensure that all the decisions that affected South Africans equally would be taken by South Africans equally. They rejected the allocation of the people into categories: that person X would have rights as a white person, or person Y as a black person. No, they said, we are South Africans, we have rights equally as South Africans. This is what is meant by a democratic society.

While today’s European Union is clearly starting from a different place to South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, we are both aiming in the same direction, namely democracy.

And here in Europe, we should think back to that basic demand: one person one vote, on a common voters’ roll. How should we interpret that demand in the constitution?

An important point is that Europe is not a single country. It should not seek to emulate a single country. The cultural and political diversity of its member states must be protected. Every federal system has found it necessary to give additional weight to the smaller member states in the legislature in order to ensure that they do not end up drowned by the larger ones. European federalists are nothing if not realists. Something of the same will be needed in the European constitution (it exists in the treaties today).

But that does not undermine our commitment to the European equivalent of the common voters’ roll. When we are choosing a government for the Union as a whole, to take decisions that affect – and on behalf of – all Europeans, we should act and be treated as Europeans as such. Nationality should not be a factor in who votes or who is eligible to stand (for example, in the rotation of European commissioners by nationality). Europe must be based on equality.

The South Africans had lived for many years with inequality and oppression. They understood what they were missing, and wrote a constitution to unite and inspire the citizens.

The draft European constitution currently in front of the Convention will unite European citizens only in the sense than none of them are inspired by it. A great opportunity has been offered for a decisive shift in the direction of democracy in Europe. It does not look as if the Convention has taken it.

We are offered the prospect that, while our elected parliamentarians can vote for the president of the European Commission, they will have no say over the choice of proposed president of the European Council. I don’t think that the South Africans would understand that as democracy.

Perhaps members of the Convention should re-read the Laeken declaration. It had this to say about the citizens of Europe:

“they feel that deals are all too often cut out of their sight and they want better democratic scrutiny.”

Compare that statement with the appointment, in secret, of a president of the European Council who will be accountable, in secret, at meetings of the European Council. The deals will remain out of sight: democratic scrutiny may well be worse rather than better.

I hope it is not too late for the Convention to live up to the expectations placed on it, but time is running out. The expectations to be met are not those of the author of this Federalist Letter, nor even the expectations of the Laeken declaration, but the expectations of the citizens of Europe. The Convention has no right to fail.

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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