MEP Guy Verhofstadt was Belgian Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008, a period that began with the Treaty of Nice and ended with the Treaty of Lisbon.
Between the two, in 2001, under his leadership, the Belgian presidency of the EU launched the Laeken Declaration which set in motion the European Convention, chaired by the Frenchwoman Valérie Giscard d’Estaing.
The aim was to draft a European Constitution. When this constitution was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, the constitution was stripped of its constitutional elements and became the Treaty of Lisbon.
“The idea of creating a European Convention with the mission of drafting a European Constitution arose during the discussions in Nice in 2000,” says Verhofstadt.
“We all realized that too many cases were blocked by rigid decision-making procedures. There was also a lack of clarity on the competences of the EU. ”
“European leaders decided to put in place a weighting of votes by country and the principle of subsidiarity, where countries could signal when they thought the EU was going beyond its competence. But in the last article of the treaty, we wrote that Europe needed a convention. give the EU a constitutional law. ”
The Laeken Declaration launched the European Convention, with former French President Giscard d’Estaing as President and Giuliano Amato, former Italian Prime Minister, and Jean-Luc Dehaene, former Belgian Prime Minister, as Vice-Presidents.
“What we did in the Laeken declaration was to frame the issues that needed to be resolved in a new treaty as questions,” recalls Verhofstadt. “For example, we asked what was the role of the European Parliament or the role of the regions? ”
“In the 1950s, European member states made a constitution, but it was rejected by the French assembly. Now we wanted to give it another try, with all the constitutional elements included, like a European flag and an anthem. ”
According to Verhofstadt, Giscard d’Estaing did a great job – but also followed his own agenda.
“Giscard began with informal summits of leaders of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to discuss world politics. In the convention, he made the European Council a real institution. ”
However, the constitution was rejected by referendum in France and three days later in the Netherlands. It was the end of the constitution – and the start of the road to the Lisbon Treaty.
“The two referendums were not about the constitution,” says Verhofstadt.
“In France, it became a referendum on Jacques Chirac, with part of the Socialists campaigning against. In the Netherlands it was about the cost of the EU and whether the Netherlands paid too much – something some Dutch politicians have been saying for 10 years. years. ”
EU leaders have found consensus on the text, after stripping off its constitutional symbols.
It was no longer a European Constitution but the Treaty of Lisbon – on which no referendum was necessary.
Yet, just after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, a global financial and economic crisis shook the world and deeply affected Europe.
“The biggest weakness of the Lisbon Treaty is that it was agreed just before the financial and economic crisis,” says Verhofstadt.
“This is why social and economic issues are not addressed. For this reason, the EU has been unable to cope properly with the crisis. Don’t forget that a Eurosceptic party in the Finnish government blocked the decision to give Greece the money it needed. ”
With the current Covid-19 crisis, the EU reacted differently and decided to issue bonds worth 750 billion euros in order to finance a stimulus plan.
“Europe has learned something from the Covid crisis,” says Verhofstadt. “More and more people are realizing that we can only face these kinds of challenges at European level. ”
In the meantime, European leaders have launched the Conference on the Future of Europe. The European Parliament wants Verhofstadt to chair it, but some European leaders do not agree.
“There are still issues that complicate European decision-making,” says Verhofstadt. “Look at the paralysis of the EU on Belarus, because of the need for unanimity in foreign affairs or on migration. ”
“There is still a lot to do,” concludes Verhofstadt, “and the European response to the Covid crisis proves that it is possible”.