Opinion: Hot issue - Would the European Constitution be good for the voluntary sector?

The NCVO has launched an online consultation about the European Constitution to initiate a sector-wide debate on whether ratification of the constitution would have a positive impact on UK voluntary organisations.

YES - Catrin Roberts, European campaigns officer, RNIB

Since its inception, the European Union has always been organised through treaties between the member states. But what worked for a small, trade-led Europe isn't efficient for the new enlarged EU of 25 members, with increasingly social values and a developing role as a custodian of fundamental and human rights.

This constitutional treaty - which is a treaty, not a constitution - is the result of two years of negotiation. Its main variation from earlier treaties is that civil society is given an unparalleled opportunity to have an input to the process and give some steer to its direction and priorities.

The treaty isn't perfect, and it could have contained much stronger wording on anti-discrimination. However, it incorporates several changes of significance to a sector quick to seize the potential of the EU. The charter of fundamental rights will be formally included, as will a reference to the Social Charter.

And EU citizens will have the right to petition the European Commission with their policy suggestions.

Placing social values at the heart of Europe and giving a greater voice to its citizens - particularly the estimated 50 million disabled people - is surely a step forward. It has to be a yes.

NO - Graham Copp, head of research, Centre for Social Europe

At more than 700 pages, the constitution would have a significant impact on the voluntary sector. It gives the EU new powers in criminal justice policy, asylum and immigration policy and services. On controversial issues, voluntary sector bodies will find it difficult to compete with larger corporate players, which make up 70 per cent of lobbyists in Brussels and have better access to the most important institutions - the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. However, advocacy after the constitution is not the only problem. It would accentuate the liberalisation of services, which could have a knock-on effect on third sector providers.

With greater powers for economic co-ordination, there could be an effect on government spending. The constitution gives the EU the power to implement "broad economic guidelines". In the past, due to the rules on government spending relating to the euro, the commission has recommended that the UK reduce deficit spending. This is perhaps the greatest potential impact - if the Government has its spending constrained, it is likely to look for the easiest areas to cut, which in too many cases has proved to be grants to voluntary organisations.

YES - Nolan Quigley, European and international officer, NCVO

As with all EU texts, the constitution is the fruit of compromise and, as such, it is far from perfect. But with clauses on the promotion of participatory democracy, commitments to more transparency in EU decision-making and to consultation with civil society, the potential impact for those voluntary sector organisations seeking to influence EU decisions could prove to be significant.

The sector, already actively engaged with the EU as a source of funding and as a target of campaigning and advocacy, has much to offer the upcoming debate. It is with this in mind that we have launched a consultation with the sector to find out its views on the constitution's potential impact.

A striking aspect of the French referendum campaign on the European Constitution has been the quality of the national debate on what kind of Europe the French people want. It has shown a vibrancy in national political discourse that, when it comes to EU issues, is perhaps lacking here in the UK.

The jury is out as to if and when a referendum will take place here.

But if it does, the voluntary sector should ensure that its views - both for and against - are heard in a healthy, constructive and vigorous debate.

YES - Annette Lawson, chair, National Alliance of Women's Organisations

The section that encourages civil dialogue and citizen participation has to be good for the voluntary sector.

In addition, an organisation such as the European Women's Lobby, with 4,000 member bodies across and beyond the EU, might be capable of obtaining a million signatures for a citizen's petition.

The main issue for us is that of gender equality. The new constitution places a value on equality between women and men. It reaffirms that equality among peoples is part of the very model of the society we are building in Europe, and it has articles that require issues of gender to be "mainstreamed" across all areas of EU concern, allowing us to legitimately question and examine every directive for its impact on women and men, girls and boys.

Alas, we still have a Europe that does not require gender parity among its decision-makers. It was profoundly wrong that a mere 16 per cent of members of the convention responsible for drafting the new constitution were women. Nothing has been done to prevent the continuing blot on all of our societies that major, public decision-making affecting all of us is largely done by men alone.

- See EU feature, page 27.

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