European Parliament debates EU's constitutional future

Ahead of the forthcoming European Council on June 21 and 22, the European Parliament debated last Thursday the summit and the revision of the treaties with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Commissioner Wallstrom.

Ahead of the forthcoming European Council on June 21 and 22, the European Parliament debated last Thursday the summit and the revision of the treaties with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Commissioner Wallstrom. Members of the European Parliament expressed diverse views ranging from a new treaty containing many elements from the Constitution, to a smaller treaty, to no change to the status quo. The debate followed on from the debate on June 6 on Parliament's own report on a roadmap for the EU's constitutional process. Vice-President of the European Commission, Margot Wallstrom, responsible for Institutional Relations and Communications Strategy, said she wished to look at three issues the summit must consider. First was migration. Here "the increasing challenges must be addressed in a spirit of solidarity," she said. She announced that the EU should seek to "reap the benefits for the labor market and society at large" but that illegal migration required better coordination, and she backed moves to set up rapid border patrols. Second was HIV/AIDS. This, she made clear, is a "critically important public health issue for Europe." Third, she stressed to the audience, climate change was not a concern of the forthcoming summit agenda but, in the wake of the G8 meeting, the EU "cannot remain silent." Nevertheless, the key issue at the summit would be the "treaty settlement." It is not sufficient to reach agreement between Member States and the institutions. The European MPs expect action on issues such as climate change, migration and energy but the institutions have not succeeded in persuading many of them to see the connection between effectiveness in these areas and a treaty settlement. Speaking for the Parliament's largest group the EPP-ED, Joseph Daul (FR) said it was necessary to create an EU able to make decisions; an EU that is "more effective, more transparent and more democratic." In his view, what comes out of the crucial summit would have to be agreeable to all Member States, including those who said "no" and those where ratification is still pending. The new text should respect the principle of proportionality, a single legal personality for the EU, a stable EU presidency, the extension of qualified majority voting (QMV) and the legally binding nature of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Daul called for a strong parliamentary voice in the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), with both representatives of the European Parliament and the national parliaments. Jens-Peter Bonde (IND/DEM, DK) said the new constitution was being "revived by giving it a new name without any proper referendums." Bonde added that "this constitution is on its knees." The EU, he continued on, "can no longer be considered a parliamentary democracy" because there is "no doubt that legislation put forward by civil servants and lobbyists is bringing an end to parliamentary democracy." Concluding, Bonde stressed the need to "get back to work" in order to produce a constitution that "represents a living, thriving democracy," and emphasized that it was crucial to "give the last word to our voters." The constitution, said Ashley Mote (ITS, UK), "totally reverses the relationship between the EU and Member States, and between the governors and the governed." The current EU reforms, Mote continued on, will lead to a situation in which "the state seeks to exist in its own right and have the people answer to it." Mote said "the original draft of the constitution ... attempted to turn a Europe of nations into a nation called Europe" and that "this [new constitution] will not be a constitution in any real form" but instead a "1950s solution to a 1920s problem." Mote concluded by saying of Europe, "You are our neighbors; you should be our friends, but nothing more." J. Andrew Duff (ALDE, UK) said: "What do you make of this latest craze for the simplified Treaty?" Personally, he added that in his opinion, it seems strange that those who support such simplification seek to delete what is the simplest article that is found in the 2004 package, which is the first article, which sets out the principles for the Union's foundation. The problem, he said, is that in trying to simplify the EU, institutions end up being simplistic, and in seeking to define an amending Treaty - rather than a consolidating Treaty - they are in the realm purely of semantics, and changing terminology and in suppressing the symbols they risk turning Euro-scepticism to Euro-cynicism. "The fact is that there is no way out of this crisis, except with strong democratic leadership and a clear vision of the common interest of Europe, and such leadership is certainly being provided both from the Presidency and from the Commission at present," Duff concluded at last. Nigel Farage (IND/DEM, UK) said he was surprised it was called a debate because the Minister did not tell the Parliament Members any of the substance of the negotiations. He further attacked the summit by saying: "But, of course, there is no debate, is there? There is no debate in the national parliaments, no informed opinion in the press, no debate at all - and why? Because this whole Treaty is being put together in secret and that is because you do not want to involve the citizens of Europe. You are fearful that the more they find out about your grandiose plans, the more likely they are to vote 'no.' Worse still is the downright dishonesty with which this whole process is being pursued. For Angela Merkel to talk in a letter about the proposal to use different terminology without changing the legal substance is the stuff of 'Alice Through The Looking Glass.' It is the twisting of language. It is the deliberate attempt to stop there being free and fair referendums in European countries." Replying to the debate, Commissioner Wallstr m expressed her feelings that the EU institutions "deserve a second chance but cannot afford a second failure." Responding to a point raised by several MEPs, she reiterated the Commission's view that Parliament should be closely involved in the Intergovernmental Conference. Lastly, referring to her earlier point about devising a "political narrative" to communicate with the public, she said this too must be a joint endeavor. The author is the head of the International Department at the Joseph Shem-Tov law firm.