Czech non-profit organisations discuss the European Constitution

Photo: European Commission

People representing various Czech non-profit organisations gathered in the Valdstejn Palace in Prague at the end of last week to discuss a document that has been causing a stir throughout Europe in recent months - the draft European Constitution. They were interested in the document's relevance to the non-profit sector and the development of a civil society.

The conference was organized by the Czech Institute for European Policy with the aim of helping Czech non-profit organizations to play an active role in the fiery debate over the European Constitution. Tereza Horejsova from the institute says that there has not yet been any real debate about the European Constitution here in the Czech Republic.

"The debate on the European constitution in the Czech Republic is absolutely insufficient; actually, it would be better to put it that it is not existent. There is no debate on the European Constitution here and we hope that at least by some ways this conference will somehow help to start this debate because it has been decided that the Czech Republic will hold a referendum on the European Constitution, and under the circumstances when the people have absolutely no information - they don't know what they are going to vote on - it is really important to provide the people with the right information."

According to David Stulik from the Foundation for Civil Society Development there is a gap between the European institutions and the public. The main role of the civil society organizations - or NGOs - should be to bridge this gap.

foto: EK
"As we have seen and heard today at this conference, the Czech NGO's do a lot of work with regard of promoting the values of European Constitution and they have the potential to make the public aware of the Constitution as such. But the problem is that they themselves do not have all the necessary information, there are no favorable conditions for such debates. For example today; all 24 Czech members of the European Parliament were invited but none of them has shown up. So this shows that this kind of dialogue, or civic debate, is more or less one-sided or one way communication."

A public debate about the European Constitution is necessary, especially because the Czech Republic is to hold a referendum on this issue. But David Stulik does not think this is a good idea.

"I don't think it is the best idea to put it under referendum because we don't have qualified information about the Constitutional Treaty. That whole debate, which will take place before the ratification, or referendum, will be very much simplified. I would even say it would be demagogical and a lot of propaganda would be said. And we wouldn't be able to hear the proper and core issues which would touch the core of the problem."

Aurore Wanlin from France is currently working at the Centre for European Reform in London. She, on the contrary, believes that referendum regarding the European Constitution will be necessary to legitimize this process.

"I think it's difficult to be against the referendum. Everyone within the European Union says: "Is it democratic enough?" "Citizens are not involved in the decision making process..." So to have a civil referendum - and almost half of the EU population is going to vote directly on the constitution - this is a very good step, very good democratic step. But on the other hand, the constitution is hard to understand, it's hard to defend, and if one or two countries say no and the other say yes, then democratically it's not very fair to say that we should throw away the text while 22 EU members have agreed on it."

The great part of the conference debate focused on the grass root level - what people in the regions have to say about the European Constitution, what kind of values they would like to have embodied in the document. In this respect civil society organizations will play an important role in the dialogue between government institutions and citizens themselves.