Constituent assembly

Historically, a constituent assembly is a body of elected parliamentarians that is set (or sets itself) the task of drawing up and enacting a constitution, often against a background of revolution or independence. After the Second World War, several major European states established constituent assemblies to draft new constitutions. The concept was transferred to a European level in September 1952, when – consistent with the provisions of the draft Treaty for a European Defence Community (EDC) – the foreign ministers of the Six tasked an ‘Ad Hoc Assembly’ of national parliamentarians with proposing arrangements for a permanent European assembly ‘elected on a democratic basis’ as part of a new ‘federal or confederal structure’ for Europe. Ironically, the overall project they evolved, known as the European Political Community (EPC), proved so ambitious that it contributed to the failure of the French National Assembly to ratify the EDC Treaty in August 1954.

Within the first directly-elected European Parliament (1979-84), there were many Members who believed that the Parliament’s historic mission would be to draft some form of new institutional blueprint for the European Community. Before the European elections of June 1979, a poll was taken among 742 candidates (62 per cent of whom were elected) to establish what proportion of them saw the Parliament as a potential constituent assembly. The results showed very wide variations between the nationalities: over 88 per cent of Belgian, German, Italian and Luxemburgish candidates supported the idea, by comparison with 29 per cent of British candidates, 11 per cent of Danish candidates, and only three per cent of French candidates.

In the Parliament, Altiero Spinelli, an Italian ex-European Commissioner and strong campaigner for institutional reform, soon established himself as the leader of those demanding a new constitution for the Community. He was responsible for the creation of the Crocodile Club, a cross-party group of federally-minded members, and later (in January 1982) for the setting up of the Parliament’s committee on institutional affairs. Ideally, his aim was for the Parliament to adopt a constitution and then, with the aid of national parliaments and national governments, to set in train a process of formal ratifica­tion. He hoped that the draft constitution would be the main issue in the second European elections, to be held in June 1984: public debate would centre upon its provisions and (if all went well) the parties supporting the constitution would be elected in large numbers. Soon after, national governments and parliaments would respond to this display of public support and the constitution would come into being.

For a number of reasons, this did not happen. The Draft Treaty establishing the European Union (DTEU), as the Parliament’s constitutional proposal was called, was not adopted in its final form until February 1984, too late for it to shape the context of the European elections – if it ever had the potential to do so – and by a majority, which, although comfortable, was hardly overwhelm­ing (237 votes to 31, with 43 abstentions, in a Parliament of 434 members). However, Spinelli’s Draft Treaty did contribute to an emerging view that the existing Treaties needed to be amended, not least to allow for the wider use of qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council of Ministers, backed by an enhanced role for the Parliament in the law-making process. The 1986 Single European Act (SEA) was the immediate outcome of this process.

Since 1984, the European Parliament has on occasion returned to the idea of being a constituent assembly. In 1989, a referendum was held in Italy inviting the electorate to endorse (which they did) the proposal that the 1989-94 European Parliament should serve as a constituent assembly. The Parliament’s second attempt to draw up a new constitution – the Herman Report, adopted in February 1994, with 154 votes in favour, 84 against and 46 abstentions – called for a ‘constitutional convention’ to be held, bringing together Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and members of national parliaments. Working on the basis of this report, the convention would prepare ‘guidelines for the con­stitution of the European Union, and … assign to the European Parliament the task of preparing a final draft’.

Even if today the Herman Report is largely forgotten, its idea of holding a ‘constitutional convention’ was to prove significant. Relatively soon after, the EU heads of government proved willing to experiment with the ‘Convention method’ – by which representatives of national parliaments, national governments, the European Parliament and the European Commission would all be brought together in a special body, in order to draft a specific text. In June 1999, the European Council, meeting in Cologne, tasked such a group with the preparation of the (then non-binding) Charter of Fundamental Rights. The resulting Convention (1999-2000) was generally perceived to be more successful than the parallel Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) that was meeting to draft what became the 2001 Nice Treaty. As a result, the heads of government proved willing to repeat this exercise for the early preparation of a new treaty text. Their Laeken Declaration of December 2001 established a Convention on the Future of Europe (2002-03), which in turn drafted the European Constitution. Although the latter text still needed to be considered by a traditional IGC before it could be formally agreed by the member states and submitted for ratification, in reality it defined the debate and shaped the outcome of the institutional reform process in many key respects. The Lisbon Treaty, which finally entered into force in December 2009, is a diluted version of the European Constitution. It makes the holding of a Convention, followed by an IGC, central to the ‘ordinary revision procedure’ for future treaty change (Article 48(3) TEU).

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry


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