Constitution 'could make EU more distant from voters'

Stephen Castle
Thursday 13 March 2003 01:00

The Labour MP who is helping to draw up a new constitution for Europe has warned that it could make the EU more bureaucratic, complicated and remote from its voters.

Gisela Stuart's comments will come as a blow to the Government which has claimed to be winning the argument at the EU convention, chaired by the former French president, Valèry Giscard d'Estaing.

Bavarian-born Ms Stuart said she could hardly be accused of being a Little Englander, adding: "I haven't got it in my genes."

But the former minister, who is the only Briton on the praesidium, the small team drawing up a prototype constitution, said the convention might produce an EU that was "more complex", where it was "more difficult for the citizen to really determine who is responsible for what decision" and where the EU would "potentially be seen as becoming all-pervasive".

As a committed pro-European, she said she wanted the EU to work, "but not if it becomes the kind of overpowering, bureaucratic machinery to which people have no relationship". She even hinted that the new constitution might alienate the public and give a new political opportunity to the far right.

Ms Stuart represents Parliament, not the British Government, on the praesidium, but her criticisms will be a blow to claims that British arguments are winning the day.

When the first draft articles of the constitution were published there was, she said, "fairly serious disquiet" from governments. She added: "I was taken aback by the strength of the reaction. If they find it difficult to accept this, how do you think the public feels?" Although many voters appeared unhappy with the status quo, the convention was "embarking on a process of expanding that. Unless this is what people really want, you get a huge gap developing between the people who make the decisions and the electorate. That is when you get the [Jean-Marie] Le Pens and the far right."

For Ms Stuart, who is seen as one of the main architects of the draft constitution, this was quite an admission. Her explanation was that the way the convention operated pushed it towards greater integration.

For one thing the make-up of the 105-strong convention was "self-selecting", Ms Stuart said, with no one group really committed to making the EU less intrusive. Worse was the prevailing culture. "We have a negotiating climate where there can only be winners, where everyone must have something."

Peter Hain, the British Government representative on the convention, had claimed that the UK's desire to protect the nation state was winning the argument. Ms Stuart said this initial impression was correct. For example, "everyone will tell you they believe in strengthening national parliaments".

The difficulty has been in the detail: "The moment you come forward with a real proposal for giving national parliaments a real say, they say 'that infringes the [European] Commission's powers of initiative', or the European Parliament says that it makes national parliaments co-legislators."

A prime example was Ms Stuart's plans to give parliaments more power to prevent EU legislation encroaching on national sovereignty. These have been watered down.

Meanwhile other ideas have surfaced, such as M. Giscard's plan for a defence pact among willing EU countries. Ms Stuart said: "We cannot draw up something that is so remote from reality in the hope that the world will move in that way."

Ms Stuart conceded that it was sometimes impossible to influence the outcome, even from her position in M. Giscard's inner core. Perhaps most striking was her belief that, within the convention, lay a misguided desire to lessen attachments to the nation state.

"I am by birth Bavarian, I know what it is like to be Bavarian," she said. "I am by choice British, I know what it is like to be British. The argument is that, if you strip out my birth and my Britishness I will become a true European. I think this is opening a Pandora's Box."

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