Wednesday, 22 September 2004

MEPs consider how to 'sell' European Constitution

The European Parliament is hoping to kick-start a Europe-wide debate on the EU Constitution when it becomes the first parliament to vote on the text at the end of this year.

MEPs will give their opinion on the Constitution on 15 December – just six weeks after the document is formally signed in Rome next month.

“By debating the issue of the new Constitution as soon as possible, we can kick-start a similar debate across the continent”, said UK Labour MEP Richard Corbett on Wednesday (1 September), a member of the Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee.

He said he was convinced that the “overwhelming majority [of MEPs] will endorse the Constitution”.

The European Parliament “should act as a pioneer”, said conservative MEP Inigo Mendez de Vigo, and member of the same committee.

“The people that we represent have not read the Constitution”, he said. “We’re talking about a very basic level of knowledge here”.

How to sell the text?

Starting off the initial debate on the text on Wednesday, MEPs were divided on how best to present the Constitution to European citizens.

Mr de Vigo suggested that it should be stressed that the text will bring “stability” to the EU.

He suggested emphasising that if the text is ratified “there will be no revision of the treaty in the foreseeable future”.

However, others felt that if it was emphasised that the Treaty will not be changed for the next fifty years – a time period suggested by its architect Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – then people might be put off.

Only people who like it 100 per cent would vote for it, said one MEP.

There was also some disagreement about how the message should be brought to national parliaments.

A proposal simply to tell national parliaments how they should vote was dismissed by several.

Travelling to the national parliaments

UK MEP Andrew Duff pushed for the idea that MEPs would travel to national and regional capitals “to sell parliament’s position on the Constitution”.

He said it is likely that MEPs will be “quizzed by people who are slightly less informed and a bit more sceptical than we are”.

Austrian MEP Johannes Voggenhuber also dismissed the idea of simply dictating to national parliaments.

“We will have to clarify [our] role”, he said.

The MEPs’ discussion come as ten countries have said they will have a referendum on the Constitution.

It is such a big and looming political issue that in the new European Commission, starting in November, there will be for the first time a specific commissioner for communication strategy.

Referring to the job, leader of the Liberals Graham Watson called it “the most challenging and certainly the most important PR job in the Union’s history”.

By Honor Mahony

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