Olof Petersson
Constitution for an Enlarged Union - the IGC and Beyond

The Swedish Presidency of the European Union
TEPSA/SIIA Conference, November 10–11, 2000, Stockholm



"The greatest challenge confronting the Swedish presidency is the EU's forthcoming enlargement." This introductory sentence from the draft program for Sweden's presidency of the EU Council of Ministers leaves no doubt that enlargement is the number one priority. Other major tasks mentioned in the program are employment and environment.

The agenda set by the Swedish government is also interesting as to what issues are left out or given lower priority. One particularly notices the absence of a plea for institutional reform. Toward the very end of the program the government argues in brief and general terms for "an open, modern and effective union", giving particular emphasis to public access to documents in the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission.

Silence is often an implicit argument for status quo, and there is no doubt the Swedish government is skeptical to the ideas of a constitutional, federal framework for the European Union. In fact, Prime Minister Göran Persson has argued strongly for the intergovernmental model. In a speech on October 5 he spoke out against federalism and argued for the strengthening of the Council. He also foresaw an amalgamation of the Commission and the Council secretariat in the future.



If coherence is taken as a criterion for political action the Swedish government could be criticized on several grounds.

It is surprising that the top priority given to enlargement is not coupled with a fervent argument in favor of institutional reform. The IGC and the Nice summit will only result in necessary, but not sufficient reforms. A union with 28 to 30 member states will require different institutional mechanisms than the intergovernmental model preferred by the Swedish government.

It also worth noticing the inherent contradiction between intergovernmentalism and transparency. The Swedish government argues in favor for the classical method of secret diplomacy. However, openness and democracy can only be achieved by decision-making mechanisms other than pure intergovernmentalism.

More than one observer have noted with surprise that the representative of a small country speaks in favor of the intergovernmental model so praised by large countries and turns against the institutions which originally were designed to give a stronger voice to smaller countries.



With the expansion of the European Union in terms of members, scope and strength, the arguments for constitutional reform grow ever stronger. This is not to claim that there is an overall consensus on the need for a revision of the treaties. The political parties which have a negative attitude toward the EU would rather see a Swedish withdrawal from the union than a Swedish contribution to the improvement of its institutional structure. Those who, as the Swedish government, share a intergovernmental view of the European Union are less prone to constitutional reform.

But there are now strong voices arguing for a comprehensive constitutional reform aiming at a clear and accountable system. One could argue that treaties and community law already form a de facto constitution. The first task would then be to rewrite the existing rules into a single, constitutional document. The consolidated versions of treaties prepared to the Amsterdam summit could be seen as a first step. A research team at the EUI in Florence has come up with another solution. The report presented in October 1999 by Jean-Luc Dehaene, Richard von Weizsäcker and David Simon proposed to separate a basic treaty from more specific texts that cover particular issue areas. Based on a proposal by Olivier Duhamel, the European Parliament recently suggested the constitutionalizing the treaties. This proposal recommended a procedure including a Constitutional Convention.

One possibility is to constitutionalize the treaties without changing their material contents. However, in the view of this year’s events, this option is less likely now. Joschka Fischer’s speech in May opened the discussion for a far-reaching reform of the decision-making structure. One of the important points of his speech was that European federalism does not have to mean the death of the nation-state. Strong and democratically accountable institutions at the supranational level could very well be combined with viable democratic structures in the national arena, as well as at the regional and local levels. Modern democracy has to be based on multi-level governance.

So far there have been few Swedish contributions to this important debate about the future of European institutions. The debate in Sweden about a European constitution is not very lively. Among the exceptions is a research group of which I was a member. Under the chairmanship of the economist Assar Lindbeck the group earlier this year suggested a number of institutional reforms, whose purpose is the creation of a more accountable and open system of government. When it comes to the European Union we argued for the following reform proposals:

* Create a constitution for the EU
Create a constitution including a concise bill of citizen’s rights and the institutional framework of the EU. The aim is to create a hierarchy of laws that replaces the unsystematic and diverse collection of treaties, directives, regulations and other legal documents that make it so difficult for the citizen to understand how the EU operates.

* Provide the EU with a double structure of competencies
Let central areas of policy be compulsory for all EU members, in order to form a common base with a considerable element of supranational decision-making. Allow voluntary inter-state cooperation between groups of EU countries in other areas of policy, that is so-called "open partnerships". The aim of this reform is to meet the demands for stable cooperation in the EU’s core area of policy and at the same time allow experimentation and diverse initiatives.

* Strengthen the European Parliament
Parliament should be given increased powers over policies which belong to the common base in order to reduce the distance between citizens and decision-makers. Parliament’s decision-making powers along with those of the Council of Ministers should be limited to areas of the EU’s basic treaty. A common voting system should be created where proportionality at the EU level will encourage the development of all-European parties. The aim of this reform is to create legislative institutions within a bicameral system, where the Council of Ministers forms the Senate and the present European Parliament forms the House of Representatives.

* Transform the EU Commission into a government
A sharper boundary should be drawn between the government and the administration. The Commission’s role should be transformed into an executive authority under political responsibility. Either Parliament should have the right to replace individual members of the Commission (parliamentary system), or else the citizens of Europe should elect the chairperson of the Commission directly (presidential authority). The aim of this reform is to reduce the "democratic deficit" by creating strong mechanisms for holding policy-makers accountable.

* Weaken national representation on the board of the European Central Bank (ECB)
Reduce the number of heads of central banks in the ECB Governing Council by using a system of rotating mandates. Strengthen the European Parliament’s power over nominations to the Executive Board.

* Open up the decision-making process within the EU
The principle of public access to official documents, including the freedom for a civil servant to act as an informant, must be applied fully throughout the EU. Council meetings behind closed doors should be replaced by open meetings of the senate.

* A closer scrutiny of EU administrative bodies
The internal review of executive bodies ought to be improved. The European Parliament must be given greater responsibility for the political scrutiny of the EU’s operations. This will necessitate greater resources for the European Parliament for analysis and evaluation. The Court of Auditors plays an important role as an independent body of scrutiny in the interests of European citizens. Sanctions against administrative in competence must also be strengthened.



Unfortunately, this and similar contributions to the domestic debate in Sweden have not given rise to widespread public debate. Even though the situation may be not that different from other member states, there are some specific reasons why public opinion and political decision-makers in Sweden hesitate to discuss constitutional issues. To understand this silence one has to go back in Swedish history.

Comparing Swedish history to the development of our European neighbors reveals certain characteristics of this country. Several important factors which have determined the fate of European countries are missing or only weakly present in the Swedish case. Sweden never had a strong feudal structure and the periods of absolute monarchy were only brief. Federalism never developed; the regions of Sweden are still relatively weak. Cities were small and insignificant until very late in history; urban and liberal influences were consequently weak and appeared late. Sweden has not experienced revolutions or civil war. For almost two centuries we have been spared the horrors of war and no foreign occupation has left scars in the public mind.

Historical non-events explain why Sweden has not developed counter-reactions such as national pride, a sense of history and destiny, and strong institutions defending individual rights. The state has largely been seen as benevolent. I was reminded by these facts from discussions in a group of European scholars, including Klaus von Beyme and Birgitta Nedelmann, who in 1999 wrote a report on Swedish democracy. I quote from our conclusions:

"In European terms, Sweden appears to be a constitutionally underdeveloped country. Since its monarchy was less repressive, Sweden developed into a form of Gesetzesstaat, but was never forced to develop a more extensive Rechtsstaat. Sweden is now being obliged to respond to the Continental system of the legal protection of rights. Constitutional government means that the rights of citizens are safeguarded by independent institutions."

"Sweden is out of step with constitutional developments in Europe. There are historical reasons for the fact that the country is lagging behind. Mass democracy was introduced in Sweden without revolutions or other catastrophic breaks with the past. Popular government was introduced within the framework of old institutions. Only now, and partly under the pressure of European integration, is Sweden being forced to take a stand in relation to the problems of principle of constitutional democracy."

What was once praised as the Swedish model of political decision-making was a system of government based on corporatist participation of interest groups, bargaining, pragmatism, and consensus. Although the Swedish model has been weakened, some of these traits continue to leave their mark on Swedish politics. Today the evaluation is not as positive as it was a few decades ago. Corporatism turned out to be a rigid procedure, and a fair-weather product suitable for a period of economic growth and public sector expansion. Bargaining and pragmatism ("everything is negotiable") are in some sense the opposite to accountable and constitutional government. The backside of consensus-seeking is conflict-avoidance.

I fear that the Swedish government is now trying to push the old Swedish model onto the new European Union. Our prime minister is happy as long as he is granted direct and informal access to Tony, Gerhard and his other friends. The question is whether the citizens in the long run will find it sufficient to delegate power through the long chain of intergovernmental decision-making. The quest for open and accountable government will, in my view, sooner or later force us to develop a constitution for Europe. With traditions of local government, public participation, equality and freedom of information Sweden could make important contributions to this European debate. But so far the constitutionalists of Europe have been listening to the silent Swede.