The eight-page ‘Laeken Declaration on the Future of the European Union’ was adopted by EU heads of government at the European Council meeting held in Laeken, Belgium, on 14-15 December 2001. The text posed, but did not seek to answer, a large number of questions bearing on the construction of ‘a simpler Union, one that is stronger in the pursuit of its essential objectives and more definitely present in the world’. It set the stage for the negotiation of a European Constitution, culminating in the signing of a treaty to that effect by heads of government in June 2004.
The origins of the Laeken Declaration lie in the unhappy compromise represented by the Nice Treaty, agreed at the European Council in Nice in December 2000. A declaration to that treaty foresaw the convening of a new Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) by 2004 to address inter alia four topics. These so-called ‘Nice left-overs’ were: a simplification of the Treaties to make them clearer and more accessible, without affecting their meaning; a more precise delimitation of competences between the EU and the member states, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity; the legal status of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which had been ‘proclaimed’ at Nice; and the role of national parliaments in the ‘European architecture’.
In the Laeken Declaration, steered through by an ambitious Belgian presidency of the Council of Ministers (led by prime minister Guy Verhofstadt), the heads of government agreed to set out on a more radical path. The 60 questions posed in the declaration went far beyond the four topics identified at Nice. The text argued that ‘Europe’s new role in a globalised world’ and the rise of major new transnational issues – such as cross-border crime, migration, climate change and food safety – all required the EU to revisit certain core institutional questions. These included the sensitive issues of extending co-decision between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, expanding qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council, and abolishing the ‘pillars’ established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. It asked whether there should be a single electoral constituency for the Parliament, whether the President of the European Commission should be directly elected, and whether the Council should meet in public. Most importantly, in a section entitled ‘Towards a Constitution for European citizens’, it posed the question of whether the changes to be discussed ‘might not lead in the long run to the adoption of a constitutional text in the Union’.
To prepare the IGC foreseen for 2004, the Laeken Declaration said that the European Council had decided to convene a Convention on the Future of Europe, which would ‘consider the key issues for the Union’s future development and try to identify the various possible responses’. Comprised of representatives of national parliaments and governments, as well as the European Parliament and the Commission, the ‘European Convention’ was chaired by former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and met from February 2002 to July 2003. Rather than suggest options, the Convention proposed a coherent draft European Constitution, which was then considered by the IGC, the start of whose work was brought forward to October 2003. After some difficulty, heads of government finally agreed a text in June 2004. Subsequently, ratification of the Constitution was completed in 18 member states, but abandoned after its rejection successively in the French and Dutch referenda of 29 May and 1 June 2005. The text was revived, in diluted form, as the Reform Treaty, agreed by the European Council in June 2007, subsequently renamed the Lisbon Treaty. The latter entered force in December 2009, following an extended period of ratification.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry