A constitution for Europe

Following the crisis, Icelanders demanded a new constitution and active participation in its creation.

One important democratic power that was added to Iceland's new constitution is that citizens will be able to initiate legislation and it asserts that the citizens of the country hold its national resources in common[EPA]
One important democratic power that was added to Iceland's new constitution is that citizens will be able to initiate legislation and it asserts that the citizens of the country hold its national resources in common[EPA]

London, UK – Last week I wrote about Ireland and Iceland and how their responses to economic crisis have differed. This week I want to explore one particular aspect of what’s been happening in Iceland. When the citizens of Europe register the full extent of the problems in the financial sector, and the inadequacy of current responses, the crisis in the EU will become a constitutional matter, both in individual countries and in the European Union as a whole. At the moment Iceland is drafting a new constitution for itself. Both the method of composition and the draft proposals have some important lessons for the rest of us.

When the crisis began in Iceland in 2008, attention soon turned to the country’s constitution. The current version dates back to 1944 and independence from Denmark. Though it has been adapted and revised somewhat since then, many campaigners have long wanted to start afresh. As a first step, 950 people met on November 6th, 2010 to discuss the themes and values of the new constitution in a National Forum. Normally experts and elites discuss constitutions in splendid isolation. The Icelandic approach was different. The members of the Forum were chosen at random from the Population Register ‘with due regard to a reasonable distribution of participants across the country and an equal division between genders, to the extent possible’.

In part because of the tight deadline, the [constitutional] council opened up its deliberations on Facebook and invited participation from the general public.

A team of five authors drew up a 600-page report based on the deliberations of the National Forum and this became the basis for further deliberation on the constitution. Icelanders then elected 25 members of a Constitutional Assembly. Though the elections were annulled the winning candidates were appointed to a Constitutional Committee instead. This Committee only had four months to write a draft constitution. In part because of the tight deadline, the council opened up its deliberations on Facebook and invited participation from the general public. The constitution wasn’t ‘crowd-sourced’, as in some accounts. But there was open discussion of every stage of the drafting process.

One of the members of the Constitutional Council, Katrin Oddsdottir, was initially nervous about inviting contributions online in this way. But, as she explained to me a couple of days ago, ‘there is a brilliance in the crowd that is greater than the sum of the individuals in it. It’s an amazing experience, to witness how clever people are’.

Save the banks?

The public that met to work out the details of the country’s constitution didn’t behave like a fractious and abusive mob. It didn’t live down to the expectations of responsible commentators in Britain and the United States, who like to assure us that that people can’t be trusted to behave like adults and must therefore be kept away from consequential matters. The debates of the constitutional council show that people behave better when they are confident that their views will receive a fair hearing. A chance to engage in rational discussion about common concerns makes us better behaved and less tolerant of disruption. Trolls, who feature so prominently in Icelandic folklore, did not make it online in significant numbers.

Counting the Cost – Lessons from Iceland

And this is something that the occupations of last year also taught us. Patient and dignified participation does not depend on the proximity of hot springs, any more than it depends on the proximity of tents and riot police. When we have some meaningful power to influence debate we become equal to that power.

Iceland’s draft constitution includes some important democratic powers. Subject to approval in a referendum later this year citizens there will be able to initiate legislation, for example. The draft also shows a keen understanding of the way in which the constitutional foundations of a society have profound material implications. The draft asserts that the citizens of the country hold its national resources in common.   

It is instructive to compare this with the European Union’s failed attempt to draft a constitution in the first decade of this century. After a meeting of the European Council at a royal palace in Belgium in 2001 a European Convention was established. Its unelected members, all appointed with the trouble of an election, came exclusively from Europe’s political classes.

Napoleon Bonaparte being otherwise engaged they settled for the Gaullist former president of France, Giscard d’Estaing as its head. Two years later the assembled luminaries unveiled a draft that, among much highfalutin boilerplate, listed the free movement of capital as one of Europe’s ‘fundamental freedoms’ and established price stability as the ‘primary objective’ of the central bank system. The French and the Dutch rejected this forgettable confection in the summer of 2005. Undeterred, the national governments quietly folded the bits of the draft constitution that they wanted into the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.


We’ve now learned that the ECB and the EU are drawing up a ‘masterplan’ for the Euro area that includes a banking and political union. According to the German newspaper, Welt-am-Sonntag, Mario Draghi of the ECB, Herman Van Rompuy of the EU Council, Jose Barroso of the EU Commission and Jean-Claude Juncker of the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers are working together on draft proposals. If anything this is even more perfectly oligarchical than D’Estaing’s earlier effort. In the midst of a crisis, four experts (four men, inevitably) are trying to determine the fate of a continent of half a billion people.

It seems increasingly clear that the current crisis will not be resolved in the existing frameworkof national and European institutions. Although the focus at the moment is on sovereign debt – the money states borrow to pay to cover shortfalls in revenues – the problems run much deeper. The debt bubbles in Iceland and Ireland have been replicated in much of Europe. An unrestrained orgy of lending and profit-taking by the privately owned financial sector has brought about this crisis.

The current orthodoxy demands that the banks be saved at all costs from the consequences of their own actions. Banks have lent imprudently and should therefore by bailed out by the public – that is, by everyone else. As far as the administrators at the European Central Bank and the Bank of England are concerned this is no more than simple common sense. But it is special pleading that can only remain plausible while it remains beyond the reach of general deliberation.

A constitutional convention worthy of the name will be one in which the fundamentals of economic and political organisation are open to just such general deliberation. The constitution building of previous centuries can give us only limited guidance. It is no longer acceptable to leave decisions in the hands of a few wealthy men who glory in the name of expert. Everyone who lives in Europe is more than qualified for the work of shaping its future. Rule by experts has, after all, brought us to the current crisis. 

Furthermore, central banking, the media and information technology are matters of profound constitutional significance. It is past time we treated them as such. But that will only happen when the peoples of Europe secure what Iceland has secured – a constitutional convention in which we all play a part.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year’s winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. 

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

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