The European constitution: what went wrong?

Richard Laming

Based on an talk by Richard Laming at the AGM of Federal Union, 11 March 2006

In talking about why the European constitution went wrong, it makes sense to break the discussion into three parts.

– The European Union and the constitutional treaty
– Democracy and politics in general
– Individual countries

EU and the treaty

First, we have to look at the problems related to the European Union or Europe as such.

Economic problems

It is not possible to discuss the referendums in Europe without looking at the state of the European economy. Unemployment in many parts of Europe is high and persistently high. It is not surprising then if voters are unenthusiastic about the future if the present does not feel secure. In fact, if you look closely, you can find a very strong correlation between wealth and the way in which people voted in the referendums last year. And the history of the European Union shows that institutional progress and economic progress have accompanied each other. I’m not enough of an economist to say whether one causes the other, or vice-versa, but it seems to be the case that we can’t hope for much constitutional progress if the economy stays as it is.

Lack of apparent purpose

When I first prepared these notes, I wrote lack of purpose, but I don’t want to have it quoted back at me, so I changed it to lack of “apparent” purpose. But the point is this, it was not obvious what the difference a constitutional treaty would make – how Europe would be different after a yes vote – and that made it hard to explain to voters. The same is also true of the European Union as a whole: it doesn’t seem to have an obvious purpose at the moment. It is not surprising that people do not support it if they cannot really see what it is for.

Lack of clarity

A further problem with the constitutional treaty was that it was not always clear what it meant. One of the aims of the constitutional treaty was that it should define and limit the powers of the European Union, and indeed there is a series of articles which attempts to do just that. But look a bit more closely and the picture becomes rather less clear. Take the example of health policy. The constitutional treaty gives the EU a shared competence in health policy which includes certain public health functions but excludes it from hospitals and other such services. So, when we were advocating the treaty, we could say it provides for sensible cooperation at European level but doesn’t centralise the things that you don’t want done at European level. However, while this sounds great, it does leave open the criticism from opponents of the treaty that the EU would take over healthcare. The details are important but rather hard to find. Again this is also true perhaps of the EU as a whole. It is not always clear who is doing what and why.

Lack of involvement

A third criticism of the constitutional treaty can lie in the way in which it was drafted. The Convention was certainly an improvement on the previous approach, namely that of committees of experts meeting behind closed doors, but it did not go far enough. While it would be nice if there were a genuine public involvement in drafting the document, that is rather unlikely; however, the involvement of national politicians in the Convention process was rather limited. There were representatives of national parliaments – both government and opposition parties – in the Convention but other than that, the involvement of national political figures in the process was rather small. A consequence of this was that it made it harder for them to campaign and be successful advocates for the treaty when the time came. Perhaps this is another criticism which can also be applied to the European Union as it stands now.


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – Tolstoy

The point about coherence deserves a mention of its own. The point is this: all the Yes campaigners were campaigning for the same text and so had to make consistent statements about it. Each No campaigner who could argue against the treaty for different reasons and it didn’t matter if the arguments were mutually contradictory as long as they could stir up 50 per cent plus one of the voters to vote No.

As it turned out, the Yes campaign was not able to establish this kind of coherent argument for the treaty and so not surprisingly the referendums were lost. Some people supported the treaty because it would extend liberal economics within the EU, for example, while others supported it in order to prevent this from happening. It is not surprising that, in this context, and voters were not convinced.

Democracy and politics

Next, I want to talk about some problems which would be common to any political campaign, not merely a pro-European one. We have also to take these into account.

Driven by media agenda

It is inescapable now that politics in Europe is driven by a media agenda. The demands on politicians are, both in substance and in timing, determined less by the political cycle than by the media cycle. And in the age of 24 hour rolling news, the media cycle is very demanding indeed. If a political argument cannot be made attractive to the media, then it will not be carried. The substance of the argument is not sufficient to claim media attention on its own.


An example of the effect of the media agenda is the personalisation of politics. The debate is no longer Labour versus Conservative but Blair versus Cameron. It matters what David Cameron’s kitchen looks like, or what he has on his iPod. Politics is increasingly a contest between individual leaders, rather than between political forces or political ideas. This poses a challenge for the pro-European campaign because it is not about individuals. In fact, that’s the whole point. It’s about changing the system precisely because individuals cannot be relied upon sufficiently. We’re not saying vote for Person X but vote for an idea.

Distrust of political elites

Furthermore, as the demands of the media on individuals grow, it becomes harder for individuals to meet those demands. There is always going to be a difference between public presentation and reality – life would be impossible if not – but that difference is now something that the media can report. As a result, the fact that we are led by human beings and not saints or machines is leading to a distrust of politicians together. Policies will never be 100 per cent successful; judgments will never be 100 per cent correct. The media can turn this gap into a gulf, with a decline in the trust of politicians as a result.

“Politics doesn’t matter”

If politicians are less trusted, people look elsewhere for the influences that matter to them and their lives. For example, I remember seeing a survey at a time of the last general election which showed that most people wanted it to be won not by Labour or Conservative but by Tesco. Pro-European politics, and indeed any politics, has to cope with this new environment and tone.

Individual countries

Lastly, I’ll come onto the way in which the European constitution treaty was seen in individual countries. If the treaty can only progress on the strength of unanimous ratification, then the position in each individual country matters a great deal to all the others.


First, and perhaps most importantly, there is France. The French No vote on 29 May last year was a seismic event in European politics. France was one of the founding member states of the European Union, and has always been thought of as one half of the Franco-German motor of European integration. Those thoughts are no longer so relevant. But why did the French vote No? There are many reasons why, I am sure, but they may be summed up perhaps by the notion that France is still coming to terms with its new role in an enlarged EU. The French had a certain idea of France, and a certain idea of Europe, but does that idea of Europe correspond any more with the reality?

The Netherlands

The Dutch voted No three days later than the French. Some of the reasons might be the same, but important ways they were different. Here is one example. Dutch public opinion took very badly the decision by ECOFIN not to enforce strictly the terms of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). For a small country, the notion that the European Union is founded on law rather than political decision is an important one. The failure to impose sanctions on the countries that breach the terms of the SGP demonstrated the extent to which political decision-making still trumps law. Of course, this is not easily solved, because France was one of the countries that opposed enforcing the terms of the SGP. To change the nature of the EU and the SGP in a way that would satisfy the Netherlands would also make them less attractive to the French. There seems to be no simple answer to this question.


Discussions of the countries that have difficulties with the European constitutional treaty often stop with these two. These are the two that voted No in referendums, of course. But I think it’s important to look beyond them. It is an accident of chronology that France and the Netherlands voted No rather than, say, Poland. The Polish people didn’t get to vote No but I suspect they might well have done had they got the chance. So it is still necessary to make the EU popular in Poland. One of the best ways to do this would be to establish an effective single market in services – creating work for the famous Polish plumber – but of course, like with the Dutch example, this would be unpopular in France. Again, we have an example where the immediate interests of the member states appear to be in conflict and not easily reconciled.

United Kingdom

Lastly, I come to the case of the United Kingdom. It is, for many reasons, perhaps the hardest case. It matters to us, of course, because it is our country. But we should not suppose that satisfying the concerns of Britain is a pre-condition for the future development of the European Union. We have to be ready to accept that the next stages of European integration might take place without us, if we cannot persuade the British people to support the European idea.

This article is based on a talk given at the AGM of Federal Union on Saturday 11 March 2006. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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