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  • Maria Cahill

It might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that the chasm between Europe and her citizens is partially caused by the weakening of constituent power at the national level. Nonetheless, this article contends that the strength of ever closer union depends partly on the resilience of national constituent power. An insight recovered from French constitutional theory – that respect for constituent power is closely related to respect for limits on the power of amendment – is used as a measure of this resilience. Upon examination of judicial decisions in Germany and Spain in which enumerated substantive limits on the power of amendment have not been satisfactorily enforced, and others in Ireland and France in which the existence of essential limits on the power of amendment has been flatly denied, this article concludes that by debilitating national constituent power, ironically treaty ratifications conduce to ever closer remoteness between the peoples of Europe.

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1 Preamble, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

2 C. Kroet, “2014 European Parliament Election Turnout Was Lowest Ever, Revised Data Shows”, Politico, 8 May 2014, available at <>.

3 The One of Us, Stop Vivisection and Water is a Public Good campaigns were submitted to and answered by the Commission, which declined to make a legislative proposal in each case. A further 22 campaigns have been withdrawn or attracted insufficient support, at least in part because the technocratic requirements are so onerous. See E. Kużelewska, “European Citizens’ Initiative: A Promise for Participatory Democracy?”, in Participatory Democracy in the 21st Century, Proceedings of 2015 Bratislava Legal Forum, 1084.

4 As a small sample of the literature produced in very recent years, see Colon-Rios, J.Five Conceptions of Constituent Power” (2014) 130 L.Q.R 306; Kalyvas, A. and Lindahl, H., “Possibility, Actuality and Rupture: Constituent Power and the Ontology of Change” (2015) 22(2) Constellations (forthcoming); Loughlin, M., “The Concept of Constituent Power” (2014) 13(2) European Journal of Political Theory 218; Oklopcic, “Z., “Three Arenas of Struggle: A Contextual Approach to the Constituent Power of ‘the People’” (2014) 3(2) Glob.Con. 200; Somek, A., “Constituent Power in National and Transnational Contexts” (2012) 3 (1) T.L.T. 31; Thornhill, C., “A Sociology of Constituent Power: The Political Code of Transnational Societal Constitutions” (2013) 20(2) Ind.J.Global Legal Studies 551; Tushnet, M., “Peasants with Pitchforks, and Toilers with Twitter: Constitutional Revolutions and the Constituent Power” (2015) 13(3) I.J.C.L. 639. See also Martin Loughlin and Neil Walker (eds.), The Paradox of Constitutionalism: Constituent Power and Constitutional Form (Oxford 2007).

5 Craig, P., “Constitutions, Constitutionalism, and the European Union” (2001) 7 (2) E.L.J 125; Cronin, C., “On the Possibility of a Democratic Constitutional Founding: Habermas and Michelman in Dialogue” (2006) 193 Ratio Juris 343; de Búrca, G., “After the Referenda” (2006) 12 E.L.J. 6; Grimm, D., “Integration by Constitution” (2005) 3 I.J.C.L. 193; Grimm, D., “Does Europe Need a Constitution?” (1995) 1 E.L.J. 282; Habermas, J., “Constitutional Democracy: A Paradoxical Union of Contradictory Principles?” (2001) 29(6) Pol.Theory 766; Habermas, J., “Comment on the Paper by Dieter Grimm: ‘Does Europe Need a Constitution?’” (1995) 1 E.L.J. 303; Lindahl, H., “The Paradox of Constituent Power: The Political Self-Constitution of the European Union” (2007) 20(4) Ratio Juris 485.

6 Dyzenhaus, D., “Constitutionalism in an Old Key: Legality and Constituent Power” (2012) 1(2) Glob.Con. 229.

7 M. Loughlin, op. cit., at 234.

8 The term “amendability” seems to have been first used by Willis in 1932, and the variant “unamendability” seems to be a more recent neologism of Roznai's. See Willis, H., “The Doctrine of Amendability in the United States Constitution” (1932) 7 Ind.L.J. 457; Y. Roznai, “Towards a Theory of Unamendability” NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 15–12.

9 M. Andenas, “Introduction”, in M. Andenas (ed.), The Creation and Amendment of Constitutional Norms (BIICL 2000), xii.

10 C. de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, De L'Esprit des Lois [The Spirit of Laws] (Paris 1944), Book 11, ch. 6.

11 R. Carré de Malberg, Contribution à la théorie générale de l’État: spécialement d'après les données fournies par le Droit constitutionnel français, Tome deuxième [Contribution to the General Theory of the State: Especially According to the Data Provided by the Constitutional Law French, Second Volume] (Paris 1920), 515: “[L]a théorie des trois pouvoirs et de leur répartition entre trois sortes d'organes impliquait, au fond, et elle devait nécessairement faire surgir à sa suite la théorie spéciale du pouvoir constituant: car, pour expliquer logiquement une telle répartition, il fallait bien en arriver à l'idée d'une autorité primitive et supérieure… la théorie de la séparation des pouvoirs ouvrait la voie à la théorie du pouvoir constituant.”

12 E. Sieyès, “Exposition raisonnée des droits de l'homme” [“Reasoned Exposition of the Rights of Man”], presented to the Constitution Committee on 20 July 1789, Archives parlementaires, Première série, tome VIII, 256 et seq., quoted in Carré de Malberg, ibid., at pp. 516–17: “… tous, sans distinction, sont une émanation de la volonté générale, tous viennent du peuple, c'est-à-dire de la nation” … “une Constitution suppose, avant tout, un pouvoir constituant.”

13 Carré de Malberg, Contribution à la théorie générale de l’État, pp. 490–91: “… la formation de l’État n'est commandée par aucun ordre juridique préexistant: elle est la condition du droit, elle n'est point conditionnée par le droit.”

14 Ibid., at p. 497.

15 Ibid., at p. 496.

16 Ibid., at p. 493.

17 Ibid., at 497: “Cette réformation peut être plus ou moins étendue: elle peut avoir pour but, soit de réviser la Constitution en quelques points limités, soit de l'abroger et de la remplacer pour le tout. Mais, quelle que soit l'importance de ce changement constitutionnel, qu'il soit total ou partiel, il devra s'opérer suivant les règles fixées par la Constitution même qu'il s'agit de modifier.”

18 Roznai, Y., “Unamendability and the Genetic Code of the Constitution” (2015) E.R.P.L. (forthcoming), at 8.

19 Ibid., at pp. 10–13.

20 Barak argues that there is “no substantive difference between a regular statute that violates the constitution and an amendment to the constitution that violates the eternity clause”, and thereby concludes that judicial review is “a natural mechanism for protecting eternity clauses”. Barak, A., “Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments” (2011) 44 I.L.R. 321.

21 However, David Landau notes that, although judicial enforcement of limits on the power of amendment is widespread, “abusive constitutionalism”, i.e. “the use of the mechanisms of constitutional change – constitutional amendment and constitutional replacement – to undermine democracy”, is nonetheless “increasingly prevalent”. Landau, D., “Abusive Constitutionalism” (2013) 47 U.C.Davis L.Rev. 189, at 191. See also Dixon, R. and Landau, D., “Transnational Constitutionalism and a Limited Doctrine of Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment” (2015) 13 I.J.C.L. 606.

22 Albert, R., “Constitutional Handcuffs” (2010) 42 Ariz.St.L.J. 663, at 678–98. See also Elster, J., “Forces and Mechanisms in the Constitution-Making Process” (1995) 45 Duke L.J. 364.

23 Albert, ibid., at p. 667. See also Kim Lane Scheppele's work discussing “aversive constitutionalism” in which the new constitution is defined against the evils of a past regime. Scheppele, K., “A Constitution between Past and Future” (2008) 49 Wm.& Mary L.Rev. 1377, at 1379.

24 Albert, “Constitutional Handcuffs”, p. 667.

25 Roznai, “Unamendability and the Genetic Code”, pp. 20–23.

26 Ibid., at p. 54: “… la constitution n'est pas l'ouvrage du pouvoir constitué, mais du pouvoir constituant.”

27 Ibid., at p. 53.

28 Ibid., at p. 55.

29 Ibid., at p. 55. See Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

30 O. Beaud, La Puissance de l’État [The Power of the State] (Paris 1994), 315: “On ne peut pas à la fois soutenir le caractère juridiquement inconditionné du pouvoir constituant originaire, celui juridiquement habilité du pouvoir dérivé, et les qualifier tous deux de pouvoir constituant comme s'ils étaient de nature identique.” Beaud targets not only Carré de Malberg, but also Roger Bonnard for Bonnard's re-iteration of the same distinction using the terms pouvoir constituant originaire and pouvoir constituant institute. R. Bonnard, Les actes constitutionnels de 1940 [The Constitutional Acts of 1940] (Paris 1942).

31 Beaud, ibid., at p. 315.

32 Ibid., at p. 310.

33 Ibid., at p. 350.

34 Ibid., at p. 352.

35 Ibid., at p. 351: “… une révision constitutionnelle vaut juridiquement parce qu'elle est fondée (c'est-à-dire matériellement fondée) sur la constitution.”

36 Ibid., at p. 352.

37 Ibid., at p. 352.

38 Ibid., at p. 311.

39 Ibid., at p. 352.

40 Ibid., at p. 311.

41 Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala AIR 1973 SC 1461. See also Minerva Mills v Union of India AIR 1980 SC 1789. For academic commentary, see Baxi, U., “The Constitutional Quicksands of Kesavanada Bharati and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment” (1974) 1 Supreme Court Cases Journal 45; S. Krishnaswamy, Democracy and Constitutionalism in India: a Study of the Basic Structure Doctrine (Oxford 2010).

42 Three examples are the Kenyan decision Njoya v Attorney General and others [2004] LLR 4788, the South African decision Executive Council of the Western Cape Legislature v President of the Republic 1995 ZACC 8, and the Taiwanese decision Interpretation No. 499 of the Judicial Yuan.

43 Kesavananda Bharati AIR 1973 SC 1461, per Khanna J.

44 See Section III(A).

45 Kesavananda Bharati AIR 1973 SC 1461, per Khanna J.

46 Minerva Mills AIR 1980 SC 1789, per Chandrachud C.J.

47 Executive Council of the Western Cape Legislature 1995 ZACC 8, per Sachs J.

48 Njoya [2004] LLR 4788, per Ringera J.

49 Interpretation No. 499 of the Judicial Yuan.

50 See Halmai, G., “Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: Constitutional Courts as Guardians of the Constitution?” (2012) 19 Constellations 182; Ingham, Joseph, “Unconstituitonal Amendments” (1929) 33 Dick.L.Rev. 161; Jacobsohn, Gary, “An Unconstitutional Constitution? A Comparative Perspective” (2006) 4 I.J.C.L. 460; Yap, Po Jen, “The Conundrum of Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments” (2015) 4 Glob.Con. 114; O'Connell, R., “Guardians of the Constitution: Unconstitutional Constitutional Norms” (1999) 4 J.Civ.Lib. 48.

51 Roznai, Y., “Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: The Migration and Success of a Constitutional Idea” (2013) 61 Am.J.Com.L. 657.

52 As a corollary, there is no practical distinction between an unwritten implicit limit on the power of amendment and a vaguely expressed enumerated substantive limit on the power of amendment such as the Norwegian eternity clause, for example, which protects the “spirit” and “principles” of the Constitution, inviting the judges to discover concretely what those terms mean. Article 121 of the Constitution of Norway. See Smith, E., “Old and Protected? On the ‘Supra-Constitutional’ Clause in the Constitution of Norway” (2011) 44 I.L.R. 369.

53 Roznai, Y., “The Theory and Practice of ‘Supra-Constitutional’ Limits on Constitutional Amendments” (2013) 62 I.C.L.Q. 557, at 593.

54 Her position is that judges should consider inconsistency between the amendment and transnational constitutional norms “as a presumptively necessary – if not sufficient – requirement” for the invalidation of an amendment. R. Dixon, “Transnational Constitutionalism and Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments”, University of Chicago Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper No. 349, 2011, p. 3.

55 This situation is intensified by the simplified revision procedures, Articles 48.6 and 48.7, inserted by the Treaty of Lisbon.

56 In the common law world, the doctrine of implied amendment is traditionally considered to defeat the purpose of having a constitution. In the UK, for example, in the case of Thoburn v Sunderland City Council [2002] EWHC 195 (Admin) (18 February 2002), Lord Justice Laws held that the rule of implied repeal used for ordinary statutes “has no application to constitutional statutes … A constitutional statute can only be repealed, or amended in a way which significantly affects its provisions touching fundamental rights or otherwise the relation between citizen and State, by unambiguous words on the face of the later statute”. Similarly, in the High Court of Zambia in the case of In Re: Implied Amendment of the Constitution; In Re: Corrupt Practices Act [1984] ZMHC 4 (13 November 1984), Mr. Justice Chirwa held that “there can be no implied amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution is sacrosanct and it cannot be amended by implication”. In Laurentiu v Minister for Justice [1999] 4 IR 26, the Irish Supreme Court noted the considerable disadvantages of such a doctrine, highlighting that if a constitution could be amended by ordinary legislation, Parliament is encouraged to have “so little respect for the Constitution that they would amend it without thinking of what they were doing”, and there is “the practical disadvantage that one could not find out what the Constitution … provided without reading the whole body of statute law”. Nonetheless, this doctrine has been revived in Ireland in order to accommodate European treaties. See Cahill, M., “Crotty after Pringle: The Revival of the Doctrine of Implied Amendment” (2014) 17 I.J.E.L. 1.

57 Article 23 of the German Constitution. The official English translation of the German Constitution is available at <>, from which quotations are taken.

58 Cases 2 BvR 2134/92 & 2159/92, Brunner v the European Union Treaty [1994] 1 C.M.L.R. 57.

59 They also argued that Article 38 required a national referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, but the Bundesverfassungsgericht ruled that that argument was inadmissible. Ibid., at p. 83.

60 Ibid., at p. 83.

61 Ibid., at p. 82.

62 Ibid., at p. 108, emphasis added.

63 Decision 2 BvE 2/08 & 2 BvE 5/08, on the Lisbon Treaty, 30 June 2009. All quotations from this and the following case are taken from the official English translations of the judgments of the Bundesverfassungsgericht.

64 Ibid., at paras. 110–112.

65 Ibid., at para. 217.

66 Ibid., at para. 218.

67 Ibid., at paras. 219, 235.

68 Ibid., at para. 248.

69 Ibid., at paras. 248–161.

70 The Bundesverfassungsgericht concluded there was no constitutional impediment to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty even though the Treaty did not preserve these policy sectors from European influence. Moreover, in a 2012 challenge to the ratification of the Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism, the Court re-affirmed that revenue and public expenditure is an exclusively national competence but then determined that “only a manifest overstepping of extreme limits” in relation to budgetary autonomy would be unconstitutional. Decision 2 BvR 1390/12, 2 BvR 1421/12, 2 BvR 1438/12 on the Treaty establishing a European Stability Mechanism, 12 September 2012, at para. 216.

71 Article 169, an enumerated procedural limit, prohibits amendments during a period of national emergency.

72 Declaration 1/1992 en relación con el Tratado de la Unión Europea. All quotations from this and the following cases are taken from the official English translations of the judgments of the Tribunal Constitucional.

73 Article 93 provides that: “Authorization may be granted by an organic act for concluding treaties by which powers derived from the Constitution shall be transferred to an international organization or institution. It is incumbent on the Cortes Generales or the Government, as the case may be, to ensure compliance with these treaties and with resolutions originating in the international and supranational organizations to which such powers have been so transferred.” The official English translation of the Spanish Constitution is available:, from which quotations are taken.

74 Declaration 1/1992 en relación con el Tratado de la Unión Europea, Part 4.

75 Whereas Article 13.2 of the Constitution provided that only Spanish citizens could vote and stand for election in Spain, Article G of the Treaty provided for a right for citizens of the EU to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal and European elections in the Member State in which they reside.

76 Declaration 1/2004, Re the EU Constitutional Treaty and the Spanish Constitution, 13 December 2004.

77 Ibid., at para. 34.

78 Ibid., at para. 35.

79 Ibid., at para. 37.

80 Ibid., at para. 37.

81 Ibid., at para. 58.

82 Cf. Case C-399/11, Stefano Melloni v. Ministerio Fiscal [2013] ECR.

83 Article 46.1 of the Constitution of Ireland.

84 Although the Constitution itself makes reference to natural law as “antecedent and superior to all positive law” and “inalienable and imprescriptible” (cf. Articles 40–43), the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that this does not mean that natural law is superior to the Constitution, nor does it prevent the people from amending the Constitution in violation of natural law. Re Article 26 and the Information (Termination of Pregnancies) Bill 1995 [1995] 1 IR 1.

85 Crotty v An Taoiseach [1987] IR 713.

86 Ibid., at p. 767.

87 Ibid., at pp. 783–84.

88 Ibid., at pp. 783–84.

89 Hanafin v Minister for Environment [1996] 2 IR 321; Re Article 26 and the Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for the Termination of Pregnancies) Bill 1995 [1995] 1 IR 1.

90 Pringle v Government of Ireland [2012] IESC 47.

91 Ibid., at pp. 783–84.

92 Decision 92–308 DC of 9 April 1992, Treaty on the European Union. All quotations from this and the following cases are taken from the official English translations of the judgments of the Conseil constitutionnel.

93 Ibid., at para. 13.

94 Ibid., at para. 14. The Conseil constitutionnel found that the provisions of the Treaty on the European Union that established a right of Union citizens to vote and stand as a candidate for municipal and European elections in other Member States, together with provisions relating to the free movement of persons and establishing economic and monetary union were incompatible with the Constitution and required constitutional amendment.

95 Decision 92–312 DC of 2 September 1992, Treaty on the European Union.

96 Ibid., at para. 44.

97 Ibid., at para. 45.

98 Ibid., at para. 19.

99 Decision 92–313 DC of 23 September 1992, Law authorising the ratification of the Treaty on the European Union.

100 Ibid., at para. 2.

101 Decision 2004–505 DC of 19 November 2004, Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

102 Ibid., at para. 7.

103 Ibid., at para. 24.

104 Decision 2007–560 DC of 20 December 2007, Treaty of Lisbon.

105 Nonetheless, they do not concern themselves with Carré de Malberg's argument that enumerated substantive limits on the power of amendment should be respected as a matter of respect for constituent power. In Ireland, Article 1 is not interpreted as a limit on the power of amendment even though it stresses the inalienable right of self-determination and in France, Article 89.5 has not been considered even though it proscribes amendments which affect the republican form of government.

* Visiting Fellow, Institute of European and Comparative Law, Oxford and College Lecturer, School of Law, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland. The author expresses her gratitude to Dr. Eoin Carolan and all the participants at the “Beyond Montesquieu: Re-thinking the Architecture of Contemporary Governance” held in Dublin on 29 March 2012, in particular Prof. Nicholas Barber, Prof. Imelda Maher, and Prof. Emmanuel Sur, for their constructive engagement with the initial arguments of the article, and the Spring 2016 Panel of Discussants at the UCC School of Law Research Colloquium, as well as two anonymous reviewers and Prof. John Bell for their tremendously helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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