The European Council in Tampere, executing a preliminary decision reached in Cologne, has assigned a "body" - in which the Union's heads of state and government, the Commission, the European Parliament and the national parliaments are to be represented - the task of drawing up a European Charter of Fundamental Rights. This development has aroused great interest within the European Parliament and within a number of pro-European circles, and many are already involved in efforts to influence the work of this assembly. Indeed, the feeling in a number of quarters is that, correctly oriented, the assembly could carry out work of constituent, or partially constituent, or preconstituent import.
It is a fact that the constitutions of most of the world's democracies contain, as their intrinsic part (or in the form of amendments in the case of the Constitution of the United States), a declaration of rights. It is also true that the people's imposition of a bill or declaration of rights on the king was, in Great Britain and France, the basis for the birth of the liberal democratic state. The setting down of a declaration of rights appears, then, to be an exercise of a prominently constitutional nature. And yet it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the heads of state and government really wish to draw the European (and national) parliaments into the field of fundamental rights in order to distance them from that of institutional reform.
Western Europe is, today, one of the world regions in which respect for fundamental rights is most widely guaranteed and the awareness of the need to define and recognise new rights, linked to the advances in technology and the growth of interdependence, most widespread. On the other hand, it is also true that the democratic institutions, which constitute the guarantee of fundamental rights, are growing progressively weaker in all the member states of the Union, as is the consensus that sustains them. It would be irresponsible to deny that there exists, everywhere, a social unease that is fuelling the expansion of populist, xenophobic and authoritarian parties, an unease that is already compromising, even seriously, respect for certain of the most basic human rights, above all - although not exclusively - those connected with the phenomenon of immigration. But the cause of this worrying state of affairs, that could end up as a threat to democracy in Europe, lies not in an absence of solemn, and even legally binding, declarations, or in an inadequate formulation of such declarations, but rather in the structural incapacity of the institutions, both at national and Union level, to resolve concrete problems, such as giving immigrants a role in the economy (or reducing youth unemployment, renewing the outskirts of large cities, and many others besides). The basic problem is, thus, not the drawing up of a new declaration of rights, but rather the creation of the political and institutional conditions that will make their realisation possible.
These conditions would be fulfilled through the creation of a European federal power which, defending and promoting the dignity, security and wellbeing of the Union's citizens (and of those who emigrate to the Union in the quest to find acceptable living conditions), is able to stop the process of political decay and restore the circle of reciprocal trust that must exist between institutions and citizens. It must be a power able, first and foremost, to guarantee the latter that most fundamental of rights which currently is being systematically and consciously denied them: that of choosing - with the mediation of a fully sovereign parliament - a government that is not a diplomatic conference with no capacity to decide, and within which - in a manner entirely beyond the control of the electorate - different national interests fight to hold sway, but rather the democratic expression of Europe's general good. In the absence of a European federal democracy, the very foundations of the rule of law in Western Europe are destined to crumble beyond repair.
When (and if) the Constitution of the European Federation is drawn up, it will without doubt be preceded by a preamble that will contain a declaration of rights. But today what is being suggested is to draw up a preamble without a constitution. And this can be nothing other than a pure declamation. There is no use at all pointing to ends, but not to the means by which they will be achieved. In fact, it is harmful, because it burns up precious energies in Byzantine disputes instead of directing them towards the true strategic task, which is to change the power situation and the decision-making mechanisms. And it is all the more harmful because it represents the easy way, the way that allows the winning of consensus without the paying of prices, and which is thus the one naturally followed by politicians courting easy popularity.
It has been said that the body instituted at Tampere could assume decisive significance not so much as a result of the problems it will have to face, but because of its composition - it will be made up not only of representatives of heads of state and government and the Commission, but also of members of the European and national parliaments. In particular, the participation of the Euro MPs could prefigure a sort of constitutional co-decision which, once it had become part of routine procedure within the Union, could then be extended, even forcing the will of the Council, to the reform of the Treaties. It goes without saying that if one or more members of the European Parliament proves able to fight efficiently for this end, then they should be given strong support. But we must not delude ourselves. The European Parliament already has effective instruments at its disposal for putting pressure on, or threatening, the Council. They are instruments which, theoretically, it could already use in order to claim its constituent power. But in the current situation, and in its current configuration, it is not able to do this, both because the overwhelming majority of its members have absolutely no inclination to venture beyond the safety of legislative routine and the rhetoric of resolutions, and because it does not feel strong enough to commit itself to a test of strength with the Council.
The only route open to the minority that, within and without the European parliament, is aware of the decisive nature of the current phase reached by the process of European unification, is the one which will see it, with tenacity and determination, and without letting itself get involved in distracting manoeuvres, channelling all its energies into pursuit of the strategic objective that is the foundation of a federal power, and striving patiently to extend the range of its influence on the political class and on public opinion.
on public opinion.