Category Archives: Constituent Power

The EU: Democratise or Disintegrate

On 9th February 2016, Yanis Varoufakis, the unofficial leader of the ‘Democracy in Europe Movement 2025’, and a coalition of activists gathered together in Berlin to launch the ‘DiEM25’ manifesto.  They declared: ‘The EU will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!’

The former Greek finance minister believes the European Union to be a beautiful conception, but accuses it of opaqueness, elitism and furthering “the habitual domination of corporate power”.[1]  Mr Varoufakis is right – at least to the extent that this is a widespread and growing feeling amongst citizens who feel alienated and disempowered across the fledgling European polity. DiEM25 warns that this growing stagnation in democratic legitimacy combined with the growing fragility of European societies faced with economic and technological upheaval and mass migration, is bringing the continent to a critical moment of peril.

“This is the unseen process by which Europe’s crisis is turning our peoples inwards, against each other, amplifying pre-existing jingoism, xenophobia”…“Committed democrats must resolve to act across Europe”.

The manifesto document is light on actual proposals. Those that are presented range from highly feasible reforms – live-streaming European Council meetings and publishing ECB and Eurogroup minutes –  to the grander ambition of convening a European constitutional assembly by 2025. What DiEM25 does do is expose a divergence in the strategy of European unity dating back to the early federalists, a divergence that could ultimately prove to be a fatal flaw.

In 1941, at the height of the most recent and terrible of European civilization’s recurring descents into barbarity, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi languished on Mussolini’s prison island – Ventotene. Their internment for anti-Fascist dissent gave them the opportunity to reflect on the origins of totalitarianism and to ponder how best to return Europe to a lasting peace. Together they penned an extraordinary document: the Ventotene Manifesto[2] is an explicitly socialist statement of intent. It refers to the “revolutionary masses” and describes the landowning elites as “thoroughly parasitic”, but it nonetheless rejects the classism of Communist parties, arguing against the dictatorship of the proletariat as the historical means of emancipatory progress. Instead of class struggle they advocated for the ‘Movement for a Free and United Europe’. The greatest strength of Spinelli and Rossi was that they understood the imperative need for Demos. Like the DiEM25 manifesto, the Ventotene Manifesto proposed a constitutional assembly; they desired a federated Europe that was representative and participatory with enough power retained by the federal states to allow for “the development of a political life according to the particular characteristics of the people”. The weakness of Spinelli and Rossi is that they were too eager in anticipating what a free and united Europe could be and do, but treated as of secondary importance the institutional framework needed to construct such a political community. This may be an unfair criticism; they were after all stuck on an island with no knowledge of what the conditions at the end of the war would be. Nonetheless, they predicted that the united Europe would take many industries, particularly steel, into public ownership (some debates never die), whilst also remarking that “it would be superfluous to dwell at length on the constitutional institutions”. They presented a sweeping dream with little clarity of method.

This was not the case for Jean Monnet. In his Memoirs,[3] which should be required reading in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, he emphasised repeatedly: “I distrust general ideas, and I never let them lead me far away from practical things”. This is indicative of his approach to peace-building in Europe; patient wisdom, meticulous attention-to-detail and utilising a remarkable talent for networking. Over several decades, Monnet relentlessly cultivated friendships across Europe, reaching out to intellectuals, politicians, civil servants, businessman and trade unionists, who he convened together in the ‘Action Committee for the United States of Europe’. Despite their grandiose name, the group adopted the strategy of incremental development that can be identified in the contemporary EU: cautious (pre-Eurozone that is) economic integration starting with the strategic industries in the European Coal and Steel Community, treaty negotiations between member states, regulatory mechanisms, civil society and stakeholder engagement, and a gradually constructed institutional framework. These methods are familiar to students who have studied the Neo-Functionalism vs. Inter-Governmentalism debates in political science. They are the crucial difference in approach between the Ventotene Manifesto and that outlined by Monnet in Memoirs. The divergence between the Movement and the Committee. The Action Committee created an elite vanguard which has contributed incalculably to a stable peace in Western Europe…but a peace lacking a Demos. This is not to say that Monnet, Willy Brandt, Max Kohnstamm and the other associates were anti-democratic. Far from it. Monnet was enthusiastic about the United Kingdom because of our “respect for freedom, and the working of democratic institutions.”

Still a ‘democratic deficit’ in the EU has emerged and is not only a theoretical matter, but a real and harmful problem. It must be addressed, but not through Brexit. Nor through regionalist devolution alone. Both of these options risk impotency in an era of neoliberal globalisation. The deference of sovereign states to exterior institutional frameworks will become increasingly necessary in everything from the protection of marine habitats such as the humble seagrass[4], to transnational policing, adaption to mass migration flows and internet governance. Unlike ICANN, IMF, the World Bank and other international governance institutions, the EU has a Council whose members are elected heads of states or governments and an elected Parliament. Moreover, it has an institutional understanding of responsibility for fundamental rights afforded to citizens, grounded in common historical experiences, civilizational heritage and political freedom. This is not nothing; it is something that can be worked on. Democratising Europe will require the bold political imagination DiEM25 are calling for.

[1] The text of the DiEM25 manifesto can be read here:

[2] The text of the Ventotene Manifesto can be read here:

[3] Monnet, Jean, Memoirs, translated by Richard Mayne, William Collins Sons & Co. LTD (Glasgow:1978)

[4] See Project Seagrass statement on the EU:

The Panama Papers: Reimainging the Moral Force of Law


Image courtesy of Dronepicr

The release of over 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian based law firm, has revealed the lengths to which individuals and companies will go to avoid their national tax obligations. When asked about the problem of tax avoidance, President Barack Obama acknowledged that those with wealth can avoid their tax systems when necessary, especially if they have the right lawyers and accountants. ‘A lot of it is legal,’ the President said ‘But that’s part of the problem.’

Those of us interested in the global rule of law and global constitutionalism should pay attention to President Obama’s point. Promoting the rule of law is hardwired into the international normative order. NGOs, international and regional institutions, and well-meaning liberals argue that law rather than politics ought to guide decisions at the global level. As John Adams, American founder and president maintained, we want a ‘government of laws and not of men’.

But law is not divorced from politics, either at the international or domestic level. A legal system results from political decisions, and those political decisions result, in part, from power configurations. Perhaps we ought to abandon our quest for the rule of law and recognize what Marxists have long emphasized, that law simply reflects a social and economic reality which, for all its pretentions, it cannot transcend. If this is true, does this mean that the quest for the rule of law is nothing but a chimera at the global level?

I’m not ready to give up on the rule of law. Without it, violence and coercive power would dominate the world order. The argument of those working in the realm of global constitutionalism is that we need not abandon the hope of a rule governed order. There must be some way to harness power and law to produce a more just and equal political order.

At the domestic level, this can come about either through representative government, although realizing truly representative institutions which are not tainted by injustice is no easier at the domestic than at the global level. Revolutionary movements to advance the cause of equality and justice are another means, one that has created the representative systems we have in many countries around the world. There is no representative institution at the global level, so perhaps we are left with the revolutionary model?

A third way might be through the device of constituent power. Constituent power is the act of a people to establish its political order through the creation of its constitution. Constitutional conventions remain the paradigmatic instance of constituent power. But as Jason Frank has argued, the constitutional convention is not the only constituent power moment; a constitutional system results from continued engagement of the people with its legal and political order. Those engagements can at times be conflictual and even revolutionary, but at other times they may be more prosaic. The point is that such constituent moments need cultivation and attention, and need to be recognized as such in order to give them the power to shape and reimagine a political order.

Does constituent power exist at the global level? If we name political protests, NGO activism, and forums in which activists and political leaders meet to articulate new agendas and ideas, then perhaps we do have something like this. Especially if those activists articulate their claims in the language of rights, law and democracy, they may well count as efforts to constitutionalize the global order.

The activism of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which released the Panama Papers demonstrates how those engaged in the protection of free speech and hardnosed journalism – classical liberal virtues that keep lawmakers honest in domestic societies – provides an instance of global constituent power. This organization does not represent anyone, but constituent power is not just about representative democracy; it is also the moral force that ensures constitutional orders remain true to their purpose.

President Obama is right in recognizing that tax havens are legal. But the constituent power of those who revealed the failure of global law gives us hope that global justice is possible when we make use of the emancipatory potential of law to advance rights and equality around the world. Recognizing the release of the Panama Papers as an instance of global constituent power can play a small but significant role in advancing that agenda.

Anthony F Lang, Jr holds a Chair in International Political Theory in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and is Director of the Centre for Global Constitutionalism.

Image courtesy of Dronepicr