Last week I read Jan-Werner Müller’s Constitutional Patriotism (Princeton University Press, 2007 – all page numbers refer to this book); although there are more complete reviews of the book out there, it touches on petitioning, an area where I have a passing interest, one aspect in particular…
One of the arguments made in the book is that the EU is the product of a political elite trying to create constitutional patriotism “par le haut” [p85] (this is separate from whether the EU is a good thing or not). The elite have “almost a superstitious belief” in the word “constitution”, but in fact were “creating expectations that they were neither able nor willing to fulfil”, leading to conflicts between falsely raised expectations of the demos and the actual power that the elite is willing to concede.
The transnational petitioning mechanism can be seen as a real test of the willingness of the elite to move from treating the governing rules of the EU as a “constitutional treaty” to an actual constitution. It can be seen as adding an element of readability to a system that remains essentially opaque: adding an “appellate, procedural and consultative” resource [p138].
When it comes to considering the likely subject matter for petitions, what happens when issues of “transnational memory” start turning up? That is, re-remembering past events such as the Holocaust, the treatment of German minorities in Eastern Europe in 1945-1948 or the break-up of Yugoslavia as European tragedies – via petitions to the Commission or Parliament.
One can imagine the impact if a million citizens are moved to require the Commission to propose a policy recognising the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 – it was bad enough when the French parliament did it alone in 2005/6 [p102]. As Müller says, “Shaming across borders… might encourage a politics of national indignation and defensiveness” – witness the reactions of Turkey in 2006, or many Austrians in 2000 when their government was boycotted because it included the Freedom Party as a coalition member [p113-117]
The obvious conclusion is to put in place a system of pre-censorship or pre-negotiation of a petition’s wording before it is translated and put to the citizens for signature, thus retaining control with the political elite that the petitioning system would superficially be imagined to bypass. After all, “leaving militancy to civil society carries the danger of charging… unrepresentative militant minorities with the defense of democracy”. [p115] It may be acceptable (because insignificant) for the Scottish Parliament to consider a petition condemning Israel’s treatment or exploitation of the Palestinians. How would the same petitions be treated if raised at the European level?
Politics is everywhere – I love it!