Monday 23 June 2008

EU democracy and US Bill of Rights

James Madison penned the Bill of Rights, approved by the First United States Congress in 1791. When proposed, the first ten amendments (additions) to the US Constitution aimed to secure the ratification of the Constitution, still a bone of contention between Federalists and anti-Federalists.

The birth and life of the US Constitution is a recommended reading subject for anyone interested in a Europe able to protect its citizens in a changing world.

A glimpse at the ‘United States Bill of Rights’ development is offered by the Wikipedia article:


My present fascination with the subject stems from another ratification process, the one concerning the EU Treaty of Lisbon.

Built on the sand of unanimous ratification, I had long ago labelled the passage of the Lisbon Treaty (and future treaties on the same premises) a ‘mission impossible’. Today we know for sure that the number of ratifications will fall short of 27. What we don’t know is, by how much.

It would be surprising if the Irish changed their minds within six months or a year, if asked the same question again.


Despite the unanimous agreement between member states’ governments and the crushing voting records of most ratifying national parliaments, something is rotten in the state of the union, despite the legally binding ratifications.

Popular opinion is headed in a negative direction, fluctuating between cynicism and outright hostility. Pro-European intellectuals, free to speak their mind, are disillusioned to the core.

Hard of hearing, the European Council has only procrastinated and indicated a re-run in Ireland.

This is deliberately avoiding the root causes.

Even if the substance of the Lisbon Treaty could be salvaged, by most member states, the holes below the water-line put the whole European project at risk.

The European ‘Bill of Rights’ is radical democratic reform to re-establish the necessary ties between the governing and the governed.

There is time enough to devise the essentials of democratic EU reform and to make the European elections 2009 a turning-point in setting the course for the European Union.

Where is Europe’s James Madison?

Ralf Grahn


  1. "The European ‘Bill of Rights’ is radical democratic reform to re-establish the necessary ties between the governing and the governed."

    I agree, but there's a major difference between the EU and the USA: In its current form the EU primarily has power about the the national governments. The people give part of their sovereignty to the national governments and the national governments give part of their sovereignty to the EU, the other way round the EU gives rules to the governments and the governments give rules to the people. There is no such thing as a "federal law", or is there?

    A "Bill of Rights" is a powerful idea, because it certainly will bring people closer to the EU, but one has to keep in mind that basic rights like freedom of speech, religion, assembly and so on are already granted to the people by their national constitutions. A European Bill of Rights should therefor not primarily grant rights to the people, but to the member states (the Irish and many other smaller states would be happy, I guess).
    I don't know if such a bill would be able to "re-establish the necessary ties between the governing and the governed", but, if written precise and in an understandable language, it would certainly be a useful instrument of "European education" (I mean that it would be easier for people to get an idea of the EU).

    The relation between the people and the EU is per definition a second order process and in order to get acquainted with this system it is necessary for people to understand how the links between them, their governments and the EU work, at least on some basic level.

    But - in my opinion - first of all, if we want people to get closer to the EU, the EU needs a face. Somebody to show up in the evening news. And it doesn't really matter if this person is some sort of long-term president or if this person really has political power, what matters is that this person talks about European affairs on a non-national level (because we cannot expect national governments to do that..). Since the questions people have to the EU are very different from state to state (e.g. some nations might ask primarily about agricultural subsidies and others about power giants ) the EU cannot address all those questions at the same time, this is, what the national governments have to do (but don't for some reason). The person I'm talking about should address questions like what the majority of member states wants the EU to become, what the concerns of the others are and how they could be addressed, what problems we expect after the entrance of new members, what the opinion about certain issues in foreign politics is and why Britain doesn't agree. Stuff like that. With concise and clear choice of words, so that even I can understand it.

  2. Lunovis,

    I am sorry if i didn't explain my position clearly enough in this post, but I think I have in others.

    The objectives and principles of the European Union are admirable, in my opinion, and the Charter of fundamental rights compiles the existing liberties, rights and principles from various documents, so this part is more or less in order.

    What I meant was that the European Council would do well to adopt the same mechanism as the US Bill of Rights in offering a clear improvement of citizens' political rights as an addition to the Lisbon Treaty.

    This would counter growing resistance against the EU and it would mean that the Irish, if they wanted to, could vote on a different package than the one they rejected.

  3. It would be surprising if the Irish changed their minds within six months or a year, if asked the same question again.

    Yes, and no. It happened once before with Nice Treaty, and to my understanding this is what Brussels and Dublin are intent on repeating this time around. The Economist speculates that the time for a second referendum will be early 2009.

    I don't think much substantive change can be made to the Treaty without going to the drawing board, but that is not as important as making the Irish voters feel that they got something in return for bucking the trend.

    Lastly, I have to say that it is amazing how the passage rate increases on the same question if the legislator just keeps bringing it up for a vote. Odds are that all EU member states will ratify the treaty within the next year, although the Czech Supreme Court is in a unique position to spoil the ratification process.

  4. Vitaliy,

    Yes, the European Council seems to have set its sights on a new Irish referendum (next spring).

    This is the only solution to preserve the Lisbon Treaty as it now stands, and it is tempting for the Irish government in order to remain a full member of the European Union.

    But despite soothing declarations or even selling a few Nice or Lisbon reforms (like Commission size) down the river, I argue against the wisdom of a second referendum to answer the same question.

    My principal grounds are:

    1) With a few exceptions the Irish post-referendum debate seems quite inward-looking, oblivious of the interests of the EU as a whole and the other member states.

    2) Opinion in Ireland seems to become increasingly defiant.

    3) It is difficult to discern specific Irish concerns behind the disparate No reasons to remedy by means of declarations. The rejection, in my eyes, looks like a mix of No to EU reform beyond Nice and various wishes for Irish special favours going against the common European good.

    4) Sinn Fein produced a list, which looks like a rejection of serious talk.

    5) Libertas says that it is starting to think about what its programme for a 'new' EU direction might be.

    Rewards for voting against the common good would further weaken the EU, because the work as incentives to disruptive behaviour.

    6) A new referendum based on essentially the same question would further damage the standing of the European Council in the European Union, leading to increasing hostility, cynicism and disillusionment.

    Is the Lisbon Treaty worth permanently damaging the relations between the EU leaders and the EU citizens?

    Ireland can be seen as an isolated case, but the shift in opinion across the European Union is injurious to the whole European project.

    Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that real democratic reform, even within a smaller union, is the only viable solution to

    a) improve the democratic legitimacy and accountability in the eyes of EU citizens, and

    b) change the context of the second referendum in Ireland (as well as ratification and EU debate elsewhere).


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