The EU constitution Wading through the Preamble

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Mohan Murti

MANU, the ancient law-giver said that "laws and rules which are based entirely upon our social positions, time and clime, must change with the changes in society and changing conditions of time and clime. Only then can the progress of society be ensured". That was in 1500 B.C. The Manu maxim also says that a constitution should be "short and obscure". But the impossibly ponderous nature of the planned European Constitution is anything but that. It comprises 500 articles, 36 protocols, 2 amendments and 39 binding declarations: a tome of 310 pages written in the mandarin prose of French lawyers and of former French President, Giscard d'Estaing. Here's a peek at the Preamble:

"Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, the values of which, still present in its heritage, have embedded within the life of society the central role of the human person and his or her inviolable and inalienable rights, and respect for law..." So it goes on.

Not exactly like "We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens: justice, liberty, equality and to promote among them all fraternity in our constituent assembly do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution," is it?

This from the Preamble of India's Constitution has about as many words as the bit I've quoted from the EU Constitution, but the EU version goes on much, much longer taking hundreds of words where we used scores, and it doesn't ever actually get to the point.

This EU document is the fruit of extreme political correctness and, as an added bonus for the EU bureaucrats, a document which, by its very length, insures itself against the possibility of being read. A European will have to set aside several days, and then still look around for explanations of the nuances; and these explanations will not be forthcoming because the whole thing is designed to ensure that the EU government can pretty much do whatever it wants by citing some obscure passage that no one is at all familiar with.

Drafting a Constitution is no mean task and those who embarked on this EU Constitution experiment must know that it requires an awful lot of preparation, and yet can be fraught with nasty surprises!

Last month, more than 160,000 copies of the EU Constitution which were to be distributed in town-halls and libraries around France were recalled because the words "incoherent text" were mysteriously added to one of the articles.

Strangely, the proof-readers of the 310-page document failed to spot that the phrase had been added in print to Article 1-33 which concerns law-making in the EU. The author remains unknown.

The EU Constitution, signed amid much fanfare in Rome in October 2004, after some four years of wrangling, is intended to prevent a decision-making gridlock in the expanded Union. It is supposed to overhaul the Union's entire structure creating a European President, a European Foreign Minister and a more powerful European Parliament.

To come into force, it must be ratified by all 25 EU states. Diplomats have long conceded that it can be rejected in a small number of countries, but have suggested ways of getting round the problem could in most cases be found.

Up until now, the Constitution has been approved by eight countries Spain, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Greece, Germany, Slovakia. A "non" in France, a founding member of the European project in 1957 and long a driving force of the EU, is threatening to rip apart their grand plans overnight.

The current threat of a French `no', while unexpected, did not come completely out of the blue. Anyone watching closely over the last 12 months would have seen the warning signs the charter which was designed to overcome decision-making gridlock in the expanded 25-member EU.

Whatever the reasons for a "no" vote, most people agree that a French rejection of the Constitution would lead, at the very least, to a period of inertia, and at the worst to a gradual break-up of the entire project. French voters will decide whether to back the constitution at a referendum on May 29. Opinion polls show that the "no" campaign has taken a clear lead in the last three weeks. This will be followed by the Dutch on June 1. A survey showed that the gap between the `yes' and `no' votes was narrowing. The Dutch referendum is consultative and not binding for the government.

Italy ratified the European Union's Constitution, becoming the first large country in the 25-nation bloc to do so. The text, approved by Parliament's lower Chamber of Deputies in January, was passed in the Senate by 217 votes to 16.

In Berlin, fellow EU powerhouse Germany has voted with a very big 95.8 per cent to ratify the Constitution before its (Bundestag) Lower House Of Parliament on May 12 ahead of the French vote to give its neighbour a boost, with the Bundesrat (Upper House) due for a vote a few weeks later.

Spain's Lower House Of Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of ratifying the EU Constitution after voters backed it in a referendum, a sharp contrast to the deepening scepticism elsewhere in Europe. Spain was the first EU state to give the treaty popular backing in a referendum, setting an example other countries may have trouble following.

With unemployment stuck at about 10 per cent, purchasing power on the wane, fears of competition from foreign low-cost economies and Turkey's bid to join the EU, the disparate `no' camp has plenty to complain about.

Other EU states including Luxembourg, Denmark and Portugal appear determined to hold their referendum whatever the result of the French vote. There would be no referendum in Britain on the proposed European Constitution if French voters turn it down in their plebiscite on May 29. Britain, which takes over the EU presidency on July 1, has given no sign it will join in the near future the Eurozone which includes 12 of the 25 EU members.

The Czech Republic could become the last of the 25 EU member-states to decide whether or not to ratify the document, as the government has still not said when or how it would deal with the issue. A referendum is planned along with the next scheduled general election in June 2006.

Among objections to the Constitution is the belief that it would take precedence over individual country's Constitutions. That countries would lose their sovereignty and the right to make their own laws. That smaller states would see their influence reduced.

The grande peur (big fear) now haunting France is a phenomenon familiar from its history. It should have been possible to elucidate the constitution, patiently and with humility, and to dissolve fear of the toxic catchword "liberalisation". That was not to be.

The path to any Constitution is neither straight nor easy. In this context, I am reminded of the renowned German poet Friedrich Schiller. A week before his death, the doctor wrote him his last prescription. It contained a painkilling tincture of opium and castor oil. With the medication, Schiller could only hope to alleviate his worst pains. As for the European Constitution, the 25 states are bound together by a rope of sand. Will France alleviate their worst pains in about a week from now? Let's wait and see.

(The author is a former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany. Feedback may be sent to

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 23, 2005)
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