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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 48 - February 2006   
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POLITICAL SCIENCES
Title  Analysis of a stalled constitution

Like the Tower of Babel, it was at the closing stages when the vast political enterprise that was supposed to culminate in a constitution for the European Union ultimately failed, felled by a double French and Dutch ‘no’ in their referendums. The tortuous path that led to the text being drawn up by the ‘Giscard’ Convention, adopted at intergovernmental level after a laborious process of introducing amendments, and then launched perilously for ratification in the Member States is an experience that was studied ‘live’ and in depth by political science researchers with the dosei project (1). they highlight the conflicting and paralysing national preferences against which europe has been struggling for more than a decade in seeking desperately to define its goals and reform its functioning.

Analysis of a stalled constitution


George Tsebelis, an experienced observer of European political issues at the University of California, sees the attempt to arrive democratically at a joint constitution within a union of states that together constitute the world’s number two economic power as a unique political experience. The only comparable historical reference is the birth of the US Constitution… in 1776. Tsebelis is a member of the multinational team of 11 political scientists working on the DOSEI European project, which is being coordinated by Thomas König of the Speyer University of Administrative Sciences (DE).

Back in 2002, this group of researchers started to scrutinise the twists and turns of the ‘multi-stage’ path taken by the Constitutional Treaty, highlighting the dual and contradictory concerns that constantly underpinned the behaviour of the players: on one hand, the need for compromise as a means of resolving the untenable situations of stalemate in which Europe increasingly found itself, on the other the desire to preserve national ‘preferences’. Their analyses thus consider the processes of subtle bargaining that lie behind the various sections of the Constitutional Treaty, notably the central issue of the criteria established for qualified majority voting. 

In particular, they shed new light on the two years of negotiations within the ‘European Convention on the future of Europe’, placed under the very influential presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. As a way out of the evident paralysis of the limited reforms possible in the context of the Intergovernmental Conference – as demonstrated by the meagre results of the Nice Treaty (2000) – the creation of this singular assembly was decided at the Laeken Summit (2001). It was charged with “examining key issues for the development of the Union and identifying the various possible responses”. 

At the very start of business for the 96 Convention members(2), President Giscard stated that the realisation of the mission entrusted to the assembly would not ultimately take the form of a range of options but of a single text that would reflect “in a constitutional framework” a global consensus on the way Europe could reform and meet the expectations of citizens. Due to this initial shift in objective, the Convention effectively became a ‘constituent’ assembly without the word ‘constitution’ ever being mentioned in the mandate given in Laeken. The idea caught on, not only within the Convention, but also among the EU’s decision-making bodies and governments of the Member States who rallied to this new cause of a European Constitution. 

Originating as it did in the confines of trade-offs between institutional, parliamentary and governmental decision-makers, who ‘concoct’ European destinies among themselves, the Constitution suffered from the same handicap that has always afflicted the project for European integration: its so-called ‘democratic deficit’. The DOSEI researchers saw the final stage of ratification as a high-risk moment of truth. This ambitious project hatched by the elites now had to face national political structures and public opinion, who were asked to participate in the debate in the closing stages of the game. The misfortunes that befell it in the French and Dutch referendums show to what extent this divide is at the heart of ‘Europe’s future’. 

(1) Domestic Structures and European Integration
(2) In addition to the chairman and 2 vice-chairmen, the Convention comprised representatives of governments (15 for the Member States, 13 for the candidate countries), members of the national parliaments (30 + 26), 16 members of the European Parliament and two representatives of the Commission. Its chairman, in the key role, was seconded by a praesidium of 12 members and an impressive top-level secretariat.


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