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Save the substance of the constitution, says Joint Parliamentary Meeting

The shape of a new EU treaty that salvages the substance of the constitution, the role of national parliaments in the reform process, the Charter of fundamental rights and the need to build citizens' trust in the EU were the key issues debated Monday and Tuesday at the Third Joint Parliamentary Forum on the future of Europe in Brussels.

It is “high time” that we had a decision on the future of the constitution, said EP President Hans-Gert Pöttering, summing up the plenary meeting on Tuesday. “We do not need any more time”, he said, adding that ”our task is also to establish as much transparency as possible” in the intergovernmental conference: “MEPs must be there when the discussions take place”.

A will to get ahead
“It was both right and important to address Europe’s future”, said co-chair Gerda Hasselfeldt, Vice-President of the German Bundestag, who was “confident” about the future of the constitutional process, ”because it has emerged that there is a will to get ahead with this common task”. Monday's three working groups, on energy and climate change, the role of national parliaments in the reform process, and new treaty architecture were the right choices for our time, she said.

Core of the constitution
The clear message to governments should be that ”the core of the constitution must be reflected in the new treaty” said the majority of speakers in the joint meeting plenary debate, with a view to next week's European Council. Some national parliamentarians explained their countries' views on the possible form and content of a new treaty.

New compromise needed
When agreements already in place are questioned, said Jo Leinen (Germany), “trust is eroded”. As he later put it, “we have to save the essence of what has already been negotiated” and to ensure “that the new compromise does not fall short of what has been agreed”. Having to reach another agreement among 27 Member States is “sad for all the Member States that have already ratified the treaty”, added Danish parliamentarian Elisabeth Arnold. ”Tomorrow the Luxembourg Parliament will give our government a clear mandate to keep the constitution's substance”, said Luxembourg MP Ben Fayot, who also advocated including the Charter of Fundamental Rights in a new treaty.

“We have opened a Pandora’s Box – and closing it is no easy matter”, warned George Vella, a Maltese MP. Let us not “have the tail wagging the dog”, he argued, and allow a few Member States “to unravel what has been achieved”. Touching upon the issue of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Rainder Steenblock, of the German Bundestag, argued against a treaty that would have the fundamental rights of EU citizens included “in some kind of annex”. “No treaty which is not in the interest of the people of the UK should be approved”, warned UK MP Michael Connarty, adding that any proposal to transfer competences to the EU must be endorsed by referendum.

Polish Senate member Edmund Wittbrodt underlined the importance of strengthening the role of Member States’ parliaments in the EU’s institutional framework. This, he argued, “would increase the EU’s legitimacy and bring it closer to its citizens”. The constitutional treaty provisions on the role of national parliaments should not be watered down, he said.

Resolution required
“Europe's resolution and decisions are required now”, said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Minister, addressing the plenary after the working groups' rapporteurs had reported on their work. He stressed that Member States should reach an agreement on the reforms without wasting time.

Solidarity is the way out of the impasse, says Steinmeier
The EU must regain the trust of citizens, said Steinmeier: “The negative referenda were the result of a feeling that decision making was happening too remotely”, he explained. The solution to the lack of trust is solidarity within European society and among Member States, he said, noting that “the idea of solidarity is something tangible for citizens”. The German Minister then outlined some of the most important areas where the EU needs reform. Firstly, he said, foreign policy needs to be strengthened, by finally providing the Union with the means to speak with a single voice. Then, on the Charter of fundamental rights, he said that “a vast majority is in favor of making it legally binding, without necessarily extending the competences of the EU institutions”.

Reinforce the EU's capacity to act, says Barroso
“The need to reinforce the EU's capacity to act is the first reason for me to defend the constitutional treaty”, said European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who agreed with Steinmeier on the importance of solidarity between national governments at this important time in Europe's integration history. Looking ahead to the June Summit and the Intergovernmental Conference on EU reform, Barroso said: “Let's not make divisions now on issues that are not so important”.

Barroso also stressed the need to strengthen the Union's accountability to citizens and the application of the principle of subsidiarity, noting that the new arrangements for notifying national parliaments of the Commission's proposals and consultations have been in place since September 2006. Finally, advocating the inclusion of the Charter in the new treaty, Barroso said: “I cannot understand how any democrat can oppose the Charter of Fundamental Rights”.

Cross-border consensus on common energy policy and fight against climate change
Energy security and climate change - which had emerged as key issues in the period of reflection on the decision-taking process - are “two key challenges of our time”, said working group rapporteur Enrique Baron Crespo (Spain), which is why “the European Parliament has decided to roll up its sleeves and set up a temporary committee of enquiry” on these issues. Research and the use of new technologies had been a leitmotiv in the debates. Many participants had said that a future treaty should take account of these issues, echoing a report by Messrs Baron Crespo and Elmar Brok (Germany), adopted at the June 2007 plenary session.

Concertation and joint action by MEPs and national MPs is essential, said working group co-chairs Roberto Musacchio (Italy) of the European Parliament and Portuguese MP António Ramos Preto. Among the most important candidate issues for such co-operation, participants cited energy policy, preparations for the post-Kyoto period, G8 meetings, the revision of the Euratom treaty and co-operation with India and China.

Monitor subsidiarity, without damaging the EU's institutional balance
Salvaging the provisions of the draft constitution was one issue among many on which the working group on the role of national parliaments in the reform process reached a consensus, said its rapporteur Jorge Tadeu Morgado, of the Portuguese Parliament. Participants had also agreed in particular that the rules on national parliaments' responsibility to monitor the application of subsidiarity should be kept, “without damaging the EU's institutional balance”, as Morgado put it.

At this working group's meeting on Monday, its co-chair, Andrew Duff (UK), said that “The Union is a parliamentary democracy which cannot work without national parliaments and they must be better informed of what happens in Brussels”. The COSAC (Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the EU) should be turned into a “conference of national parliaments” which could take over from the Western European Union Parliamentary Assembly, enabling national parliaments to keep an eye on Common Foreign and Security Policy, said Hubert Haenel of the French Senate (France). Lord Grenfell of the UK House of Lords, felt that a “red card mechanism” would not be useful, that COSAC has no reason to change and that a national parliaments' observer at the intergovernmental conference would “reinforce the idea that parliaments form a homogenous bloc, which is far from being the case”.

Constitution as the basis for a new treaty
Participants agreed that a future treaty should promote a “Community of values” and that the Charter of Fundamental Rights should be legally binding. In fact many speakers argued that the Charter had been one reason why the constitutional treaty had been ratified by eighteen Member States. The working group strongly objected any form of a “mini treaty” and warned against “opening Pandora's box” by questioning the Convention's compromise.

The alternative would be a “The working group on the architecture of the new treaty agreed that any work done must be based on the constitution. While most members said they were flexible as regards the form or title of the treaty, they also underlined the decisive role of symbols - such as the EU's flag or Beethoven's anthem - in bringing the idea of Europe closer to its citizens.Europe of different speeds”, concluded the group's rapporteur Michael Roth, of the German Bundestag. (EP Press)