The sector in Europe: After the constitution fell

The progress of the European Constitution was stopped dead in June after referenda in France and the Netherlands returned 'no' votes. Alex Coxon looks at the consequences for voluntary organisations and asks what the future holds.

When 63 per cent of voters in the Netherlands rejected the European Constitution on 1 June this year, the media portrayed it as the end of a four-and-a-half year journey.

With 55 per cent having already voted against the constitution in France, this withdrawal of support from two founding member states gave the other 23 European Union governments pause for thought. As the UK assumed its six-month presidency of the EU at the start of July, Tony Blair called for, and received, a Europe-wide "period of reflection" on the constitution. Despite having already shelved its own referendum on the treaty, Blair's Government was keen to keep the European dialogue open.

As Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, put it in a Commons debate: "Many parts of the constitutional treaty were widely welcomed reforms. If the European Commission were to introduce these by other means, we ought to agree them straight away."

It wasn't only the House of Commons that recognised the value of certain elements in the constitution - the treaty also did well by the voluntary sector. "There's a clause on participatory democracy that lays down certain rules the EU will uphold," explains Nolan Quigley, European and international officer at the NCVO. "We felt this would be a means for the sector to get its views heard at a European level because, until recently, it's been hard for us to have the same level of input into EU policy processes.

"The Charter of Fundamental Rights contains a series of rights that would be useful for voluntary bodies working on discrimination and social policy. This would have put across a strong message about how Europe is built on certain principles of rights and social standards."

With the constitution having been formed in consultation with members of civil society - the voluntary sector included - as well as representatives from the national parliaments of member states, the European Parliament and the European Commission, the idea was to widen the treaty's scope far more than is typically the case in Brussels.

"Between 60 and 80 per cent of all new UK legislation originates in the EU, so it was good for the sector to be involved at the early stages of the constitution's drafting," says Catrin Roberts, European campaigns officer at RNIB, which has an active role in Europe thanks to its membership of umbrella bodies such as the European Disability Forum.

"We liked the treaty because it put many random treaties in one place. It didn't change all that much, but it tidied things up. The Charter of Fundamental Rights, for example, was already there but became stronger when enshrined in the constitution."

So where does the future lie for the treaty in light of the French and Dutch departures, and how can the sector ensure it remains involved in the debate?

"It's too early to say what will happen," says Richard Corbett, Labour MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber and co-author of the European Parliament's report on the constitution. "If the EU can sort out contentious issues such as future financing and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, that will create a better context in which to return to the text. At that stage, we can see whether the text can be ratified or whether it needs to be revised and amended. In the meantime, countries such as Cyprus have continued to ratify - regardless of the stay on the constitution as a whole."

Corbett hopes that any future amendments will again be undertaken in consultation with the voluntary sector - as part of wider civil society - in an open convention format. "Holding an inter-governmental conference by itself would give the wrong signals," he says. "In fact, if they hold a new convention under these circumstances, it would get even more public interest than last time."

The NCVO, meanwhile, will remain active in promoting a sector-wide debate on the constitution. "We will use the coming months to keep a high profile and really encourage the EU to reach out to organisations such as the NCVO," says Quigley.

"We're holding a fringe event at the Labour Party conference in September: it will examine how to reconnect the citizens of the EU and the role the sector should play. It's an example of how we're trying to keep the issue on the public agenda."

To see the NCVO briefing on the EU Constitution as it applies to the sector, see www.ncvo-vol.org.uk.

CONSTITUTION FACT FILE

- The European Council set up the European Convention in December 2001

- National parliamentarians, MEPs and civil society - including the voluntary sector - were involved

- The convention outlined the first draft of the constitution, 80 to 85 per cent of which appeared in the final draft, which was agreed in Italy last autumn

- France voted 'no' in its referendum on 29 May 2005

- Blair called for "a period of reflection" in a speech in Paris on 14 June

- Cyprus ratified the constitution on 1 July.

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