A pan-European Referendum for the European Constitution

Some Arguments in Support of a Pan-European Referendum

, by Francesco Ferrero

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A pan-European Referendum for the European Constitution

The Movimento Federalista Europeo (MFE), the Italian branch of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), has recently launched a new political campaign under the slogan “A pan-European referendum for the European Constitution”. Its aim is that the European Constitution, eventually amended, should be put to a popular ballot involving all the citizens of the EU and held on the same day in all member states, possibly in conjunction with the 2009 European Parliament elections.

Possible amendments to the present text might involve, for instance, the exclusion of Part Three, to which the largest number of objections were expressed in France, and/or the attachment of a “social protocol”, as proposed by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in response to the citizens’ fear. If approved by a majority of citizens in a majority of member states, the Constitution would then enter into force in those states where the Yes vote prevailed. The other states could always ratify it in a second round, and thus join the new constitutional Union later. By a happy coincidence, two great intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, proposed this same idea in the columns of the international press a few days after this campaign had been launched. Furthermore, the proposal is also supported by several EU politicians including the Austrian President Heinz Fischer and the Italian PM Romano Prodi.

Of course, as happens with any innovative political proposal, such as the campaigns for European Parliamentary elections, the European single currency, and for the European Constitution (not yet concluded, but ideally continued with this new campaign), many objections will be raised both inside and outside federalist circles. This is why, in order to refine our analysis, I shall try with this article to summarise those objections, and to explain why I don’t find them convincing.

First objection: a pan-European referendum on the Constitution is risky because the citizens have turned their back against the EU, as was shown by the negative votes in France and The Netherlands.

This argument, repeatedly invoked by the anti-Europeans after last spring’s negative ballots, is de facto without any rational foundation. We need only add together the sum total of votes cast in the four referenda on the Constitution (in Spain, France, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg), to see that 26,662,958 electors voted Yes as against 22,667,763 who voted No - a clear majority in favour! And what about the 13 countries where the Constitution has been ratified by their respective Parliaments [1]? Or the fact, that in other countries, such as Finland, the ratification process is still going on? I believe that the French and Dutch citizens’ negative vote was largely influenced by national rather than purely European issues, and that it was founded on the illusory hope that a No vote would pave the way for a better text to be negotiated without having to pay any political price.

...we are convinced that we will never be able to achieve the political unity of Europe against the will of the citizens.

Finally, we are convinced that we will never be able to achieve the political unity of Europe against the will of the citizens, because no government would ever renounce its power unless forced to do so by strong popular demand. From the time of the Congress of the European People, this has always been the federalists’ real task: namely, to show governments that their citizens are ready to make the European choice provided someone manages to convince them of the benefits they would gain.

Second objection: Since we cannot exclude any State from the EU, the Constitution must be approved by the unanimity of the member States.

First of all I must clarify that those who propose a pan-European referendum on the Constitution - as I do - have no wish to exclude any state from the Union. Those states whose citizens reject the Constitution should always have the possibility of negotiating a special status of association with the EU. This should include all the rights deriving from the present Treaties. Furthermore, they should always be able to rejoin the new Constitutional Union by holding a new vote after their citizens have had time to re-evaluate the situation.

The principle of unanimity, sometimes described as the main symbol of democracy, is in fact its extreme negation. Today 20 million French and Dutch No votes are deciding the destiny of 450 million EU citizens, a large majority of whom have already expressed their support for the Constitution. Already in the EU15 the unanimity principle showed its limitations, pushing the governments to convene the European Convention. Now, with the EU’s enlargement to 25 member states, it has become totally unacceptable, and might in the end paralyse the Union’s entire functioning. This danger was recently in evidence during the difficult negotiations over the 2007-2013 financial perspectives.

Not by chance in fact did article 82 of the Draft Treaty Establishing a European Union (better known as the “Spinelli Project”, approved by the European Parliament on February 14, 1984, with 238 votes in favour, 31 against and 43 abstained) already state, that «This Treaty shall be open for ratification by all the Member States of the European Communities. Once this Treaty has been ratified by a majority of the Member States of the Communities whose population represents two-thirds of the total population of the Communities, the Governments of the Member States which have ratified shall meet at once to decide by common accord on the procedures by and the date on which this Treaty shall enter into force and on relations with the Member States which have not yet ratified».

Moreover, even in the field of international law, where the degree of integration is much weaker than in the EU, international treaties can normally enter into force after a minimum number of ratifications. Everybody knows, in fact, that probably no treaty would ever enter into force if a unanimous ratification were necessary.

Third objection: European integration cannot proceed without France.

This argument originates from a nostalgic conception of Europe, one tied to the myth of the Founding Countries. We must realise that too much has changed since then. The enlargement to 25 member states brought a profound shift in the political equilibrium of the EU, and modified the rules of the game forever.

Furthermore, France is today facing a big crisis, deprived of any real influence over world politics, and unable to reform its own economic and social system. First the riots in the banlieues, and then the students’ revolt against the CPE (First Employment Contract), revealed to the world the alarming fragility of this country. To leave the final word on our common destiny in the hands of France, or of any other state, would be to commit political suicide.

On the other hand, France’s hopes of overcoming this crisis of identity depend entirely on the re-launch of the European integration project, and France’s main interest lies in following that re-launch. We should never forget, by the way, that many believed it was impossible to create the Euro without the UK. Everybody knows how that story ended.

There are also a certain number of “juridical objections”. A pan-European referendum would be illegal, either because in some countries referenda are forbidden by the Constitution, or because, according to the present Treaties, the Constitution must be unanimously approved before entering into force.

First we should clarify that our proposal is for a consultative, non-binding referendum. Each country would still be free to ratify or not by means of the procedure dictated by its Constitution. Furthermore, it should be clear that we are talking of a brand-new procedure which, by definition, cannot entirely comply with the existing laws.

The history of European integration is full of episodes where the existing laws were “bent” in the face of a precise political will to move forward. At the December 1975 European Council meeting in Rome, for example, President Aldo Moro obtained a decision in favour of the direct election of the European Parliament, despite the fierce opposition of Great Britain and Denmark. To avoid being politically sidelined these two countries had to accept the deal.

Should this example not be enough, the EP elections still take place in a manner that conflicts with the Treaties, which prescribe a uniform electoral procedure for the entire EU. The same happened in 1990 when the IGC on European Monetary Union was convened despite Mrs Thatcher’s opposition. In presence of a strong political will, it would therefore be perfectly possible for at least a first group of countries to hold a pan-European referendum. Some countries might not be able to take part in it, but that would not diminish the significance of the initiative.

Finally, both among European and Italian federalists there are some who think we should defer such an important instrument until we have a better draft Constitution, one that could give life to an authentic European Federation.

On the contrary, we think that unless the present Constitution is finally adopted there will be no chance for a very long time of elaborating a better text. If it were not adopted, those Governments who oppose the federal project most fiercely would immediately claim that the citizens do not want a European Constitution at all, and would try to close the debate for many years to come. The sole challenge before us now is, therefore, to obtain the ratification of this Constitution, eventually with the amendments we described. We must reassert that, despite this text’s limitations, it could still pave the way for important developments.

Furthermore, the very fact that its ratification has encountered so many difficulties should allow us to re-open the discussion on amendments immediately afterwards. In fact, if the Constitution were to be ratified by means of a referendum - which by definition excludes unanimity - any proposed amendments would also need to be ratified by majority. And one further point: the most hostile states will probably have rejected the basic text and therefore will have excluded themselves from these future negotiations.

In conclusion, if there were to be a pan-European referendum on the basis of the present text, in a few years we might be able to obtain a much better one. If not, we might never again get a chance to vote for a better Constitution. It would be a real pity to waste an historical opportunity in the name of an ideological pretext.

This article was originally published in the June 2006 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World


- Referendum Plus, the energy drink used in the referendum campaign on the EU Constitution in Spain; source: Flickr
- Referendum campaign placards in France (Avignon),May 2005; source: Wikimedia



[1Fifteen member states have ratified the treaty so far, including eight of the newcomers. They are old members Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Spain, and new adherents Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia. The treaty has instead been rejected by the citizens of France and The Netherlands in two referenda last year.

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