Why Europe needs a constitution

Why Europe needs a constitution

Bulletin article
Andrew Marr
01 June 1999

Europe cannot survive as a political entity without being a working democracy. Here are three simple propositions about how it can become one. The first is that nothing which is too complicated for the ordinary voter to understand can ever be democratic. The EU's Byzantine array of power-centres linked by codes, treaties and impenetrable jargon is itself a huge barrier to popular assent. We should not underestimate the sheer problem of complexity.

Voters need straightforward answers to basic questions - what the Commission is, what the Parliament is, where it sits and how these two things fit together. We can never underestimate how even the core EU bodies confuse people - never mind the extra pillars and other organisations.

The second proposition is that in any system where you have competing political institutions, there is an inevitable, almost Darwinian, struggle for supremacy. That's obvious when examining the events of the past six months. The resignation of the Commission was not purely about maladministration. It was also about one institution, the Parliament, engaging in a power raid on another. Institutional war is a trait of almost all national political cultures, throughout history. It happened, for example, in the English civil war.

When the Commission resigned in March 1999, much of the anti-European British press cited this as a classic example of Europe's political failure: here was overwhelming corruption and it was a long time before anything was done about it. But one can make a comparison by saying the sums of money involved in that episode were, in monetary terms, almost exactly the same as that stolen every year from the British social security budget in fraud. If you try to imagine in a British context, the Commons voting to sack the cabinet because of social security fraud, which is completely unthinkable, you get a different angle on the usual idea that Brussels is apolitical, undemocratic and flaccid. We aren't yet at the stage of a tumescent European democracy but things, at least, are beginning to warm up.

So what happens next? Either European institutions constantly compete, causing endless unease, or else they will be held together and the competition formalised in a constitution, one with enough popular assent to keep it in play for a lengthy period of time. Even with a proper constitution there are tensions between different institutions and different levels of hierarchy and so on, but there is a universally understood grid in which they operate. That is not so in the EU, certainly as far as most Europeans are concerned.

My third proposition is that governments exist and work best as a settled thing. Governments are an essential amenity to allow the rest of us to get on with our lives. Nothing is more boring and alienating to the vast majority of people than endless arguments about the forms and legitimacy of government. We want it to stay in the background, working efficiently so that we can make money, fall in love, kick footballs around, and generally engage in the important things in life.

A democratic EU will therefore be one which the ordinary voter can understand; in which institutional competition is settled by constitution; and one which is accepted. None of these things make it democratic by themselves; but they are necessary conditions for democracy.

The whole process of European integration has been deeply tied up with the question of identity and belonging. But the next phase of European politics can only advance at all if enough people are talking about multiple layers of identity. There are at least three layers of identity for most Europeans: the local layer, which is about neighbourhood: the reassurance of family, territory or town landscape. Then there is the national identity, which for most people is about history, familiar constitutional structures, and culture and language (and football). Finally there is the European level of identity, about security, making people feel that they are part of a block in a fast-changing, globalised world, which is able to negotiate with the other bigger blocks, but also provides some of the essential security of traditional countries or empires.

If we can think in those triple terms, then this creates a kind of political position sellable to any European. It is more rooted in common sense than any unitary, nationalistic view of identity. It should not be beyond the wit of the politicians to sell this notion of layered identity far more successfully than they have done in the past.

If those propositions are taken together, we can put together a case for a proper European constitution. Although this is looking far ahead, there will have to be some kind of Congress of Europe to settle a constitution. The end result may, in terms of the structural machinery, look quite like the Europe we already have. I would, however, like to see a semi-permanent and open council of ministers, even if a large part of the business takes place in private.

Unless you can present a single, unchanging idea of how Europe works, that can be sold and explained to people, then it will be very hard to create a settled European identity. There will never be a European nationalism. Nor a European patriotism. But there will be a strong layer of European identity, on top of and not replacing local and national identities.

A European constitution or congress is not something that will happen in the immediate future, but we need European-wide political discussion, intended to lead to some such conclusion eventually, even if there is no fixed deadline. That may be a wild thought, but it is easy, for bodies of like-minded people,
to think that all is well as they talk themselves into a mood of general affability, while to ordinary voters it does not seem that way at all.

Obviously we cannot write a European constitution now - that is the end of the process many years hence. But there is a choice we cannot avoid. Either we live in a ramshackle, constantly arguing, disunited Union, linked by a maze of obscure bodies and ragged-edged treaties, in which the high principles of the elites bear little relation to the horsetrading of its daily politics. Or we work towards a limited but clear, constitutionally settled European confederation, simple enough to be understood and supported, but loose enough to allow rival cultures to thrive comfortably.

This Europe won't be a superstate, or a mimicry of the United States, but the first big political institution which accepts that individual human identities are multi-layered, not single or uniform. It would be a Union of nations which had forsaken nationalism. Either it is coming; or the future is darker than we thought.

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