Latest socio-political enquiries into the nature of constitutions

27 September 2011

The latest workshop in the Social and Political Foundations of Constitutions series was held at Wolfson College on 27th September, in order to further the project to draw comparative studies of constitutional theory and practice from around the world.

Opening the workshop, Willem Witteveen described how his experience as a constitutional lawyer was informed by a spell working at the Senate of the Netherlands, during which time he saw the enactment of the Temporary Referendum Act and the outright rejection of a European Constitution. The resulting Lisbon Treaty was characterized as an unintelligble compromise, couched in 'lawyer-speak' and, effectively, inaccessible to the public.

These developments led him to a nuanced consideration of exactly how a constitution for Europe could be conceived. Professor Witteveen's thesis focused on the slippages between normative and textual approaches to the constitution, both in political rhetoric and public misconceptions about the nature of the European settlement.

Cristina Parau followed with her depiction of the situation in Romania since the transition from Communism, and the encroaching judicialization of politics, enacted through the empowerment of the judiciary by a transnational network of legal elites. She argued that this trend is emerging alongside greater European integration, and has resulted in a judiciary empowered to contest policy within Romania, while professing ultimate loyalty towards Strasbourg.

Illustrating her argument with a wealth of empirical research and interviews with key figures, Dr Parau brought to light the central project to establish, 'the fundamental strategic directions of the constitutional edifice in order to make it agreeable to the Council of Europe'.

The workshop was concluded with a fascinating insight into the socio-political history of the Iranian constitution by Binesh Hass, which he outlined in order to arrive at some more philosophical conceptions to explain the current situation in Iran. Hass described how in the late '70s and early '80s, the constitution-drafting process served to secularize the clergy, forcing it to engage in the world of politics, as well as providing a forum for participation and, in theory at least, the expression of dissent. Khomeini invited the clergy to examine and comment on the new constitution in newspapers, and saw their role as crucial to the realisation of true freedom, which was ultimately conceived as freedom from materiality.

Hass concluded by examining the strategy of the Green Movement in 2009 to resurrect the legitimacy of Article 5 of the Constitution, which enshrined the consent of the People, and which was removed from the Constitution upon Khomeini's death.

These thoughts proved a rewarding note to end on, and presaged forthcoming FLJS workshops focusing on post-revolutionary constitution-making, with particular emphasis on states involved in the 'Arab Spring'.