Thursday, January 19, 2006

What to do about the EU constitutional treaty? That's the question we debated yesterday and voted on today.

There are at least two views. One is that this text of the Constitution is dead following the referenda in France and the Netherlands; that we had better start thinking of something else and preparing a different way forward.

The other view is to say: hang on a minute, this text has actually now been ratified by a majority of Member States. The 25 national governments themselves did not declare it dead. Instead, they extended the period of ratification and opened a 'period of reflection'. In that period of reflection we must listen carefully to those who said ‘no’, but we must also listen to the majority who have said ‘yes’ and find a way forward that can ultimately bring the two together.

Eurosceptics shout loudly about the French and Dutch referenda showing that "Europe" has lost touch with public opinion and that the constitutional treaty (presumably unlike any other treaty) was an elitist project which the public is now revolting against. They never mention the referenda in other countries which endorsed the treaty, nor the fact that, in total, more people voted in favour than against.

What we have is not a mass revolt, but a divergence of views. In the EU, when countries' views diverge, the traditional pratice is to talk things through to try to overcome that divergence and to find a compromise solution. In the past, when new treaties have been rejected by a member country, ways have been found, with the agreement of the country concerned, to reassure public opinion and to allow the treaty to be adopted after a new referendum.

This time, it is far too soon to draw conclusions as to the best way forward. The period of reflection has begun by addressing issues of context rather than the text. It is only now that several governments have begun to float ideas as to what could be done about the text.

Parliament concluded that the period of reflection must be extended at least until 2007 to enable a longer and deeper reflection. Until then, all options should be kept open. Of course – as is to be expected – Parliament would prefer to maintain the text, but it recognised that that would only be possible if measures were taken to reassure and convince public opinion. What those measures might be is left open. Parliament pointed out that there are, in theory, many options: supplementary interpretative declarations, extra protocols, rewriting part of the text, rewriting the whole text, drafting a new text and so on.

Which option is best and feasible will only emerge at the end of the period of reflection. The conclusion cannot be drawn now. But one thing is certain: the status quo – that is, the current Treaties – is not sufficient for this Union in its enlarged form to function effectively or democratically. This issue will not go away.