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Wake up, Europeans!

By Oliver Eberl

The ratification process of the EU constitution is taking a turn for the grotesque. The largest constitutional project in modern history is expanding at a Napoleonic rate. But seldom has such a celebrated political project seen so little tangible circulation.

Europe is gradually waking from its dream of growing up fast. The largest constitutional project in modern history is expanding at a Napoleonic rate. But ironically it is running up against unforeseen borders. Now neither geographical frontiers nor Christian-Occidental divides are threatening to put a spanner in the works of the European constitutional project, but translation problems and voter misinformation.

As long as one referendum followed the next, the European elite could continue forging its plans to equal in might their autocratic US neighbour. But suddenly it is clear that Europe may not after all be capable of making a rapid ascent into the big league. Because to do so, it needs a ratification of the constitution. And fast.

To this end the parliaments of all member states are being given an ever-changing set of deadlines demanding their unconditional consent, or hurrying them to hold referenda. The consequences of this haste are grotesque. Only two weeks after signing the latest version of the "Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe" on November 11, the parliament of Lithuania gave the all clear for Brussels but the translation of the treaty (as with all other European languages) did not appear in the official EU journals until four weeks later. What exactly the Lithuanian parliament voted is anybody's guess.

Translations of the draft EU constitution are also littered with grave mistakes. Recently the judiciary committee of the Estonian parliament was compelled to state that it would be impossible to vote on a treaty that was "neither authentic nor complete". Although that did not stop the Lithuanians, it will delay referenda in Poland, Estonia and Latvia by several months at the least.

Any number of countries are threatened with fiascos. In Poland, plans to hold the referendum on the same date as the general election have fallen through, making it highly unlikely that the necessary 50 percent of the population entitled to vote will do so.

In Spain, the first member state to hold a referendum, the lack of information bred considerable resentment. The opposition expressed outrage that the people were being asked to vote on a constitution it knew nothing about. Although in recent weeks five million copies of the constitution (200 pages of writing and 300 pages of protocols and explanations!) were distributed in kiosks, petrol stations and football stadiums, the sheer volume and complexity of the document did nothing to promote discussion. Internet voting, which was intended to guarantee the success of the referendum, never materialised. Fears that insufficient votes would be cast persisted up until the referendum took place on February 20. (The Spanish population voted to adopt the constitution, ed.)

The ratification process which was being forced through at a lightning pace is now suddenly slowing down. It testifies to the character of the entire process that this deceleration has nothing to do with political considerations. Technical problems succeeded in achieving something the general public could not: temporarily disabling the march of bureaucracy.

And not a moment too soon. At last the public will have some time to actually familiarise themselves with the subject matter of ratifications, referenda and their results in a constitutional process which has become almost impossible to grasp in its entirety. It is no coincidence that discussion about the European constitution has until now concentrated solely on values: the (deleted) reference to ancient Greece and the (also deleted) reference to God. By contrast, the subject of democracy is only touched upon in the discussion of absolute and qualified majorities and Council membership.

Organisational structure, the shape of the constitution, legislation procedures and powers of the judiciary have been completely neglected. If debate about the constitution remains solely on the level of declamatory values, without taking stock of the organisational clauses and clauses concerning the separation of powers, it will fail to unearth democratic deficits and play into the hands of executive authority.

Seldom has such a celebrated political project seen so little tangible circulation. This imbalance could be the downfall of the constitution. During the French Revolution, the new constitution and all declarations on human and citizens' rights were posted in public for people to read, so they could gauge the government's activities. When the U.S. constitution was being drawn up, the pros and cons of every last article were hotly debated in the newspapers over an entire year. But European officials obviously feel obliged to do no more that publish the documents in their journals. This does not bode well for European constitutional patriotism.

Democracy needs democratic processes. But these take time – time which has yet to be granted to the ostensible highest state power, the sovereign. True to the motto: let a sleeping sovereign lie, the European sovereign, its people, risks being kept in the dark until a European constitution it never wanted, discussed, or decided upon, is firmly in place. Or will it awake before it is too late?


The article was originally published in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 16 February, 2005

Oliver Eberl, born in 1973, studied political science and philosophy in Frankfurt. He has written on Kant's philosophical sketch "Perpetual Peace" and Germany's role in the ratification process of the European constitution.

Translation: lp.

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