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Don't forget the citizen!

By Dick Leonard. Source: European Voice

Constitutional debate must not be monopolized by governments, argues Ecas

Is Chancellor Angela Merkel going the wrong way about rescuing the EU's constitutional treaty? A new Manifesto by the Euro Citizens' Action Service (Ecas), issued in advance of next month's celebrations in Berlin of the 50th anniversary of the Rome Treaty, strongly suggests that she may be.

Merkel's tactic is to restrict discussion to behind the scenes negotiations with member states' governments. In a series of meetings behind closed doors, their representatives have been invited by the German EU presidency to see whether they can cobble together a slimmed-down document which will preserve the central elements of the 2004 treaty, while excluding material deemed to be unnecessarily controversial

In particular, an effort is being made to appease voters in France and the Netherlands, while avoiding provocation of the British, Czech and Polish governments which are, at best, lukewarm about the whole project. It represents a bold attempt to square a circle, and a gamble on Nicolas Sarkozy rather than Ségolène Royal emerging victorious in the French presidential election.

Tony Venables, the Director of Ecas, does not mince his words in criticizing Merkel's approach. The Treaty of Rome does not just belong to national governments, he says, but also to the citizens of Europe. There should of course, be negotiations between governments, but this is no reason to exclude public debate about the options.

The German presidency has a responsibility, in his view, to encourage national governments to promote wide-ranging public debate in their own countries as to the form and content of a replacement treaty or agreement. Otherwise, he argues, the successive steps which have been taken since the Maastricht treaty towards a Citizens' Europe will be betrayed, and weight will be given to those who argue that the EU is an elite project, which ignores the views of its citizens.

The Manifesto lists ten points which should be highlighted in the March 20 Berlin declaration by the European Council. All of them are focused on the need to open up the EU more to citizen participation, to increase transparency in its decision-making, and to shift the balance between the economic provisions of the Rome Treaty, and those – more directly affecting citizens – which have been added in later treaties or which flow from decisions by the Court of Justice.

The former, Venables argues, are strongly worded and effectively enforced, while the latter tend to be less authoritatively worded, and their application has often been more patchy.

On its merits, there is a great deal to be said for the Ecas approach and it is undoubtedly the case that any treaty which emerged from the process it recommends would be intrinsically a better treaty, and one better attuned to public opinion.

It would, however, almost certainly be a more extensive treaty, and would therefore run a greater risk of being turned down by one or more member states. Moreover, the more ambitious it turns out to be, the more likely it is governments will succumb to the fatal temptation to submit it to referenda, an almost certain recipe for failure when as many as 27 states are concerned.

This is something which the German presidency is desperate to avoid. While countries such as Ireland and Denmark may be required by their own constitutions to hold referenda, their hope is that all the others will decide that parliamentary ratification would be sufficient.

The biggest threat is clearly in France, where Royal seems to have already fenced herself in to a public consultation if she wins the election. The other great danger comes from Britain, whose ill-fated decision to hold a referendum last time stampeded other governments (included France and Holland) to follow suit.

It will probably be up to Gordon Brown to decide next time round, and it is far from certain that he will not feel constrained to follow the ill-considered precedent set (but not acted on) by Jack Straw and Tony Blair in 2004.

More likely than not some countries will, in fact, decide to hold referenda. In which case, it would be better to follow Ecas's advice, and ensure that whatever provisions the treaty contains have already been subjected to public debate.

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.